There are some teams which just seem to be an Achilles heel for others. For the Montana State University-Northern women’s basketball team, that squad is the UM-Western Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs crushed the Skylights last month in Dillon, and on Thursday night at the Armory Gymnasium, they snapped an eight-game losing streak by breaking Northern’s heart on Valentines Day. The Bulldogs withstood a final surge from the Skylights and held on for 56-54 win in Havre. The loss was the Skylights’ (7-6, 15-10) second in a row after they had won four in a row and six of their last eight.
And Thursday night’s setback was especially disheartening because the early on, it appeared as though the Skylights were on the verge of being blown out by the Bulldogs for the second time this season.
After a strong start by Jordan Bruursema, the Bulldogs went on a 13-4 run in the first half, and things continued to get worse as Western’s Sammy Bignell banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Bulldogs into halftime with a commanding 35-22 lead. Western kept a hold of that lead for much of the second half, building it up to as many as 16 points.
But instead of Northern getting blown out at home, the Skylights rallied. Kacie McKeon sparked a 15-2 Northern run with a three, while Bruursema hit one of her own, as did Nikki Tresch. McKeon added a steal and a layup and another trey and all of a sudden, the Skylights were behind just 54-51 with 3:09 to go.
“We had matchup problems with Western,” Northern head coach Chris Mouat said. “So we made some defensive adjustments and we were finally able to get some stops. We got enough stops and then we made some big baskets in what was a crazy second half. So I’m proud of what we did to come back.
“But at the end of the day, we lead they got on us in the first half was too much because we had to spend so much energy trying to come back from it. We almost got there, but we ran out of time.”
The Skylights did run out of time, literally.
After trimming the Western lead down to three, the two team’s battled defensively until Bruursema made an old-fashioned 3-point play with 1:29 to go. That made it 56-54 Western. And after a Bignell missed free throw, the Skylights had a golden opportunity to seize momentum again. However, a costly turnover gave it back to Western, yet, Northern got another chance just seconds later. But turnovers were again crucial as the Skylights threw the ball out of bounds, forcing them to put the Bulldogs on the line with :09 left in the contest.
Northern wasn’t dead yet though as Western’s Jenna Banks too missed the front end of a one-and-one, leaving Northern with one last crack to tie or win the game. But it wasn’t to be as McKeon drove towards the basket, collided with two Western defenders as she let go of the ball and time expired. The ball didn’t reach the goal and no foul was called, letting the Bulldogs escape with the narrow victory.
“We made a great aggressive move to the basket at the end of the game,” Mouat said. “But for the most part, we hurt ourselves down the stretch. And our start doomed us. We just fell too far behind in the first half, and for a while, even further in the second. We made mistakes throughout the game and we didn’t do ourselves any favors down the stretch. So credit to Western for coming in here and playing very well.”
As good as Western (5-8, 13-4) played, the Skylights were right there at the end. And that’s why the home loss, in the middle of the drive to the Frontier playoffs, stings so much. Northern, which dropped into fourth place in the Frontier, got big 17 points and eight rebounds from Bruursema, while McKeon hit two treys and scored10 off the bench. Tresch added eight points, while the Bulldog defense held the Skylights to just 31 percent shooting on the night.
Northern’s defense played well too, as the Skylights matched the taller Bulldogs on the boards. Western got 12 points each from Bignell and Alecia Wilson, as the Bulldogs swept the Skylights for the season.
Thursday night’s loss is one the Skylights will have to rebound quickly from as 4th-ranked Westminster comes to Havre Saturday night.
“We have to dust ourselves off and come back and play as well as we can against a very good Westminster team on Saturday night,” Mouat said. “It’s going to be a tough game, especially because they are so good defensively. Against them, every single possession is critical, so we’re going to have to play very well and do whatever we can to dictate tempo.”
The Skylights will celebrate senior night against the Griffins Saturday. MSU-N’s home finale tips off at 6 p.m. in the Armory Gymnasium.
Skylights are 7-6 in the Frontier, 15-10 overall; Next up: vs No. 4 Westminster Saturday
Western 56, Skylights 54
UM-W — Sammi Bignell 5-12 0-1 12, Jenna Banks 1-5 0-1 3, Brittney Leibenguth 2-6 2-2 6, Alecia Wilson 5-11 2-2 12, Kaci Matthies 3-7 1-4 7, Kelsey Callaghan 1-3 0-0 3, Roxy Thurman 3-5 3-3 9, Kassie Kerbs 2-3 0-0 4. Totals: 22-53 8-17 56.
MSU-N — Jordan Bruursema 7-15 1-2 17, Laci Keller 2-8 3-3 7, Nikki Tresch 3-13 0-0 8, Taylor Cummings 1-5 0-0 2, Kylee Denham 1-7 0-0 3. Kassie Barta 1-4 0-0 2, Kacie McKeon 4-8 0-0 10, Rachelle Bennett 2-5 1-3 5, Maurisha McKissc 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 21-66 7-19 54.
Halftime: Western 35-22. 3-pointers: MSU-N 7-19 (Bruursema 2, Tresch 2, Denham 1, McKeon 2), UM-W 4-14 (Bignell 2, Banks 1, Callaghan 1). Rebounds: MSU-N 38 (Bruursema 8), UM-W 38 (Bignell 6). Fouls: MSU-N 16, UM-W 12. Fouled out: None.