The Montana State University-Northern men’s basketball team is fresh off its first loss of the young season, and its first home loss in almost two years.
Last Friday night’s setback against Warner-Pacific was a good learning experience for the No. 23 Lights, who have four new starters and are rotating as many as eight new faces this season. But bouncing right back is going to be a tall order given Northern’s next two opponents.
MSU-N (6-1) is in Las Vegas Friday and Saturday for a tournament where the Lights will face two of the best teams in NAIA basketball. On Friday, Northern faces No. 8 Westmont College of California, then they battle No.1-ranked Concordia of California on Saturday
“These two games are certainly going to be a challenge,” Northern head coach Shawn Huse said. “But right now, we’re more focused on getting better. We truly are a young team and we’re just starting the process of coming together. It’s going to take time and we’re going to have bumps in the road along the way. That’s just to be expected with this many new guys. So I’m really proud of the fact that we’re 6-1 right now.”
Indeed, the Lights are a brand new team, with senior Devin Jackson returning as Northern’s only starter. Jackson leads the Lights in scoring at 11 points per game, while Nilson Santana, Roshawn West and Jesse Vaughan are all averaging close to 10 points per night. Despite a lackluster shooting night last Friday, the Lights still average better than nine 3-pointers per contest and are holding opposing offenses to 62 points per game. On the boards, Santana, Corbin Pearson and Will Perry all average about five per night heading into this weekend’s games in Las Vegas.
And both games will be a herculean task for the Lights, as they face the top two teams in the Golden State Athletic Conference. Friday’s game is Westmont’s (0-0) season opener. The Warriors return four starters this season and are picked to finish second in the conference. Senior guards Preston Branson and Niko Brooks will be tough to defend in the backcourt, while 6-7 power forward C.J. Miller is expected to lead the Warriors in the paint this season.
And though the game against Westmont will be a huge test, things don’t get any easier on Saturday when the Lights take on Concordia. The top-ranked Eagles (1-0) are the defending national champions. They have one win under their belt and a close exhibition loss to NCAA DI Portland this season. They play Rocky Mountain College on Friday night before taking on the Lights on Saturday.
The Eagles did lose three starters and six players from last year’s national title team, but with senior forward Dakota Downs back, and a lot of young players ready to step up, they are expected to make another deep run this season.
“Both teams we’re facing this weekend are very good,” Huse said. “They are both big and physical teams, but they can shoot the ball well too. There is no better experience for our guys than these next two games and we’ll embrace that challenge because we won’t see anybody better than these two teams all season long.
“We’re going to go down there and play hard, fight both teams tooth and nail and see if we can have a chance to win them at the end,” he added. “And hopefully we come out of this weekend a better team and we’ll be better down the road for having played these two games.”
Friday’s game between the Lights and Westmont starts at 11 a.m. in Las Vegas. Northern and Concordia will tip off at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Lights are back at home to face Jamestown College Nov. 23-24.