By Ryan Divish
It's a matter of respect. The Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team was looking for a little, but earned a lot this weekend.
The Lights, picked to finish second to last in the Frontier Conference, improved their conference record to 3-0 with a pair of decisive wins over the University of Montana-Western and Montana Tech.
"Every time we go out on the floor, coach tells us to go out free-swinging and play, because you have nothing to prove because they picked you to finish second-last," said guard Lamar Morinia. "We know we're better than that. We know what we can do out there."
What Northern can do is play some defense. The Lights forced UM-Western into 26 turnovers on Friday night en route to a 73-60 victory.
It's a good thing that Northern was playing good defense because the Lights weren't exactly shooting the lights out.
Northern shot a frosty 6-30 from the field in the first half, including 2-17 from three-point range. The Lights had good looks, but shots just weren't falling.
UM-Western head coach Mark Durham changed things up a little. The Bulldogs, normally an up-tempo team, slowed the pace of play down to a crawl by playing a zone defense and running the shot clock down on offense.
"We've come to expect anything from Coach Durham," Lights head coach Shawn Huse said. "He's pulled some things out of his hat in years past. We told the kids that he might do something like that coming into the game."
Still, as poorly as Northern shot, it trailed by just two points, 28-26, at halftime.
It was only a matter of time for the Lights' shots to start falling. Led by Morinia, Northern knocked down six of nine three-pointers in the second half to pull away. Morinia scored eight consecutive points during a two-minute span to give the Lights a 45-41 lead. Western answered with a three-pointer from Brandon Day to cut the lead to one. However, Northern subsequently went on a 12-2 run, sparked by Morinia's fifth three-pointer of the game, to pull away.
"Coach always tells us, 'If you have an open look, fire,'" Morinia said.
Morinia finished with a game-high 20 points while his brother, Larry, chipped in with 16 points and four assists. Charlie Ereaux chipped in with 10.
While the offense finally came around, Huse was pleased to see that the defense remained a constant.
"We held them to 60 points," Huse said. "That's where you want to be. If you can hold teams to around 60 points and shoot any kind of percentage, you'll win games."
The hot shooting from Friday night carried over to Saturday night. Northern sank 11 three-pointers, including nine in the first half, while shooting a blistering 63 percent from the field in a 91-74 drubbing of Montana Tech.
As was the case Friday and will probably remain the same for much of the year, Northern faced a zone defense. However, unlike Friday, the Lights' shots were falling early and often.
The foursome of the Morinia brothers, Zach McLean and Koire Rogers was deadly from the outside, accounting for all 11 of Northern's three-pointers.
"We were getting good looks and we have to take them," Huse said. "That's our strength. There are going to be nights when we go cold from the outside. Hopefully there are more nights when we are hot."
Despite Northern's torrid shooting, Tech was able to hang around thanks to some hot shooters of its own. Shane Sutton knocked down six three-pointers, including four straight, to keep the Orediggers close.
Tech trimmed Northern's 44-38 halftime lead down to two at 46-44 early in the second half. But the momentum changed on back-to-back spectacular plays from the Morinia brothers.
Larry Morinia blocked a Pat Weber three-point attempt, grabbed the loose ball and scored with an easy layup. Not to be outdone, Lamar Morinia forced a steal from Sutton and went the length the court for a monster one-handed dunk. The two plays energized the Lights and the crowd, and effectively put Tech away for good.
"When our guards get out and get their motors running, they can be tough to keep up with," Huse said. "There is something about the fast break that always gets the crowd going. That's one thing I like about our team is our ability to do that."
Tech tried for one last-gasp effort to get back into the game, but a pair of three-pointers from Rogers and six consecutive points from Ereaux iced the game.
Ereaux finished with 23 points, five rebounds and five assists. The Morinia brothers combined for 24 points and seven assists. Rogers and McLean had stellar games off the bench, finishing with 14 and 13 points, respectively.
"I knew it was just a matter of time before Koire found his shooting stroke again," Huse said. "He came in and gave us a big lift off the bench, which was really needed."
With the wins, Northern improved its record to 16-5 on the season and 3-0 in the Frontier Conference. Instead of second-to-last place, Northern is sitting in second place behind Westminster College.
"This was a great weekend for us," Huse said. "But we have to get right back into the gym and get focused for next week."