The NAIA women’s basketball season is already three months old. But for the Montana State University-Northern Skylights, the fun is just beginning.
Northern (8-5, 1-0) will re-open Frontier Conference play tonight when the Skylights host new league member Dickinson State at 6 at the Armory Gymnasium. Tonight’s game is part of a big weekend in the Armory, as the Skylights also host rival Rocky Mountain College on Friday night.
MSU-N is 0-1 in league play, with a close loss to Carroll College back in November. But that game was a long time ago, and the Skylights have grown by leaps and bounds since, according to head coach Chris Mouat.
“I thought we played really well in California (The Skylights went 1-1 on the road last weekend),” Mouat said. “Even in the loss to the Master’s, I thought we did some really good things, and we were very good defensively. So, with the schedule we’ve had, we’ve gone through a lot of learning experiences. We’ve won some close games and we’ve lost some close ones, and through it all, we’ve prepared well for the conference season. We’re ready to go.”
The Skylights aren’t just prepared for this weekend’s home games, as well as the rigors of the Frontier, they’re also as healthy as they’ve been all season. MSU-N welcomed back senior guard Kylee Denham last weekend after she missed several games with an ankle injury. And Denham played well in California, averaging nine points and seven rebounds in the two-game, road split. Meanwhile, senior guard Nikki Tresch is third in the Frontier in scoring at 16 points per game. She shoots better than 45 percent from the 3-point-line and is tops in the conference in free-throw shooting.
Northern is also getting good production from senior Jordan Bruursema, who averages 11 points and seven rebounds per outing, while Laci Keller, who also had injury problems earlier in the season, is averaging seven points and six boards per game. The Skylights’ depth is also playing a role as five other players average between five and eight points per game.
And Northern will need to be at full strength and firing on all cylinders as conference play gets going.
Tonight’s game against the Blue Hawks (5-10, 0-1) will certainly be a good test. Though DSU has struggled somewhat, and was swept by the Skylights a season ago, Mouat knows the challenges his team faces tonight, and the Skylights won’t be taking DSU lightly.
“They (Blue Hawks) have talented players and good size,” Mouat said. “They do a really good job of getting the ball into their posts, and those kids do a great job of executing. And they are a very good rebounding team. They also have some quick guards who can get to the rim, so they present a lot of challenges to us defensively.”
Janae Moore, a 5-11 forward, leads four Blue Hawks in double figures. The talented post player scores 14 points and grabs nine rebounds per game, while guards Mariah Duran (5-5) and Lorna Shepherd combine to score 19 points per game. Jess Byegate (6-1) is also a talented center who averages 10 points and seven rebounds per game, and she, along with Moore, will present a stern test for Northern’s post players like Bruursema, Keller, Maurisha McKissic and others.
And if DSU isn’t a difficult enough test, the Battlin’ Bears will also give Northern plenty to be concerned with on Friday night. RMC (4-7, 1-0) got off to a slow start this season, but the Bears are 1-0 in conference play and they bring plenty of firepower to Havre.
Junior guard Brittany Kumm (5-4) is the catalyst for a high-tempo Rocky attack. Kumm averages 12 points per game, is an outstanding 3-point shooter and is excellent at driving to the basket. Point guard Haleigh Crnkovich (5-5) leads the Frontier in steals, while shooting guard Kalli McCloskey can hit from the outside. The Bears are also strong inside with 5-11 Brittany Myers averaging 10 points per game, and 6-1 center Marisa Morais averaging 11 points and six rebounds per night.
“Their guards (Bears) are lighting quick,” Mouat said. “They can shoot and they pressure you full court with their speed, so that’s going to be a big challenge to us. They are very athletic and they really get after you defensively.
“Neither team we play this weekend is overly huge, but they both rebound the ball really well,” he added. “So we have to be strong on the boards. And with both team’s being really quick, we have to play good hard defense for 40 minutes, and on the offensive end, we have to take care of the ball. Those are going to be big keys for us this weekend.”
And make no mistake, this is a big weekend for the Skylights. Northern is trying to build upon the solid season it had a year ago, and while the non-conference season certainly helped, it’s all about Frontier play from here on out.
“We’re really glad to be back playing at home,” Mouat said. “Our kids are excited and they are ready for this. The Frontier season is a long grind. And with how tough it is to win on the road in this league, you certainly want to hold serve at home. So we have to take advantage of being on our home floor, in front of our great fans this weekend. And our kids are excited for that opportunity.”
Tonight’s game between the Skylights and Dickinson State starts at 6 at the Armory Gymnasium. Friday night’s game between MSU-N and RMC also tips off at 6 p.m. MSU-N returns to the road next weekend with games at UM-Western and Westminster.
Skylights vs DSU tonight at 6 p.m.; vs RMC Friday at 6 p.m.
Skylights Probable Starters
G Nikki Tresch, 5-5, Sr.
G Taylor Cummings, 5-5, So.
G Kylee Denham, 5-8, Sr
F Jordan Bruursema, 6-0, Sr.
F Laci Keller, 6-1, Jr.