Opening Frontier Conference play against your biggest rival is exciting enough. Doing it on a Friday night in November, with a freshly renovated gym, now that’s something special.
And that’s exactly what the Montana State University-Northern Lights will do tonight when they host the Carroll College Fi
ghting Saints inside the Armory Gymnasium at 7. It’s the Frontier opener for both the No. 23 Lights (9-2) and the struggling Saints (0-7). Northern will return to nonconference play Saturday night against New Hope Christian.
MSU-N comes into tonight’s opener fresh off two hard-fought wins over NAIA power Jamestown College last weekend at home. The Lights beat the Jimmies by a single point last Friday, then edged them by two points last Saturday afternoon. And both thrilling games should have MSU-N well prepared for tonight’s rivalry game.
“I think those games revealed a lot of character about our team,” MSU-N head coach Shawn Huse said. “We have felt all along this is a really good group of guys, but those games really proved it. They showed a lot of heart and pride by gutting out two wins when we probably weren’t playing our best offensively.
“Hopefully, those games were a confidence booster for this team,” he continued. “Hopefully, it shows them that no matter how tough it gets, we can find ways to win games.”
The Lights were indeed gutsy last weekend. Reserve guard Alfie Miller hit a huge 3-pointer to beat the Jimmies last Saturday, and he exemplifies a solid Northern bench, which also gets a boost from the likes of sophomore Corbin Pearson, Mike LaValley, Savion Udeh and others. The Lights are also getting solid senior leadership from Devin Jackson, who leads them at 14 points per game. Meanwhile, Jesse Vaughan averages 13 points and five boards, and Will Perry scores nine and leads the team with seven rebounds per game. Roshawn West is also shooting the ball well right now, and is helping the Lights average a 35-percent clip from the 3-point-line.
The Lights also continue to play great defense as they lead the Frontier in scoring defense yet again. Northern is allowing teams just 56 points per game. The Lights also force an average of 15 turnovers per outing.
And those numbers, along with Carroll’s winless record, combined with the fact the Lights are playing at home, wouldn’t seem to bode well for the Fighting Saints tonight. Carroll averages a league worst 67 points per game, and also gives up the most points in the Frontier, at 79 per night.
But Huse cautions that not everything is as it seems.
“Carroll’s record is not an indication of how good of a team they are,” Huse said. “I think it’s a combination of the schedule they’ve played and a little bad luck more than anything. They’ve played three (NCAA) DII teams, and they’ve played some excellent NAIA opponents. They’ve been in every game, with many of them going right down to the end.
“So we’re not looking at them from a standpoint of wins and losses,” he continued. “We’re looking at them as a really good opponent who is coming into our gym hungry for a win. We fully understand Carroll is a very good basketball team.”
The Saints certainly have the makings of a good team, though they may be still trying to find their way a bit without four-time NAIA All-American Andy Garland. And much like Northern, Carroll has spent the early part of the season breaking in a pretty new roster. And that hasn’t been easy for the Saints to do considering they’ve played road games at though places like Corban College and Western Oregon, as well as the College of Idaho.
Still, returnees like senior guard Ben Cutler (6-0) and junior standout Chris McGrath (6-2), along with the return of standout point guard Nick Jones (6-5), give the Saints a stellar backcourt and stability in the lineup. Newcomers in the post, like 6-6 Dennis Mikelonis, 6-6 Brett Ball, 6-7 Noah Kone Nelson and 6-4 swing man Riley King help make Carroll a potent offensive team as well. Jones, Mikelonis and Cutler all average in double figures for the Saints, while Ball leads the team with six boards per night.
“Carroll has good shooters, a lot of experience at the guard position, and they rebound really well,” Huse said. “They execute their stuff really well and they are very physical and athletic. So we fully expect this is going to be a typical Northern/Carroll game.”
A typical Northern/Carroll game usually means emotion, intensity, good defense and games that go right down to the wire. Those are things both teams bring to the table and it shouldn’t be any different tonight.
And though the Lights will turn right around and play New Hope Christian on Saturday night, Huse is solely focused on tonight’s Frontier Conference opener. It should be a great game in front of a big crowd as Northern spends the weekend dedicating its new-look gym, one which should only enhance what is already one of the best home-court atmospheres in all of NAIA basketball.
“We know a little about New Hope Christian,” Huse said. “They are a team transitioning to the NAIA right now, and they seem to be getting better. They have good size and they return a lot of good players from a team that really improved last season.
“But right now, our entire focus is on Carroll,” Huse added. “It’s going to be a very hard-fought, physical game with them. And it’s a game we know we need to come out and play our very best if we’re going to have a chance.”
Tonight’s Frontier opener between the Lights and Saints will tip off at 7 at the Armory Gymnasium. Northern’s game against New Hope Christian will get under way at 7 p.m. Saturday night. This weekend’s games will be the final time the Lights will play at home until they re-start Frontier play Jan. 3 against Dickinson State.