By Ryan Divish
This weekend marks the halfway point of the Frontier Conference basketball season as the Montana State University-Northern men's and women's basketball teams host Westminster College and Lewis-Clark State College.
If you told either women's coach Mike Erickson, or men's coach Shawn Huse that their teams would be challenging for their respective league titles at the beginning of the conference season, both would have greeted you with the same smile that the clerk at store gives when you ask if the lottery ticket you just purchased is a winner.
While the Lights and Skylight have exceeded expectations, both coaches know that the season is far from over and tonight and tomorrow's games may be the toughest yet.
"This is a big weekend," Erickson said. "People think those other weekends against Carroll and Rocky and Tech and Western were big, but this is really important because we're playing at home."
Indeed, every team wants to sweep their home games but these will be against two of the best schools in the conference. Both Westminster and Lewis-Clark State boast top squads in both the men's and women's divisions.
On the men's side, Westminster and LCSC were picked to finish at the top of the conference along with Carroll College and so far they are following that prediction.
LCSC, Westminster and Northern all have 4-1 records in the conference. LCSC is coming off a 92-84 defeat of Westminster last Saturday. However, the Griffins still own victories over Rocky Mountain College and Carroll.
"We're not looking things pessimistically or optimistically, we're just looking at things realistically," Huse said. "But it would be an upset if we beat either of these teams."
Westminster brings perhaps the biggest team in the Frontier to face perhaps the smallest in Northern. The Griffins suit up six players taller than 6-6 and Huse fully expects them to use their size advantage.
"You hate to sound like a broken record," Huse said. "But we can't give up second chance points and find a way to get rebounds."
While Westminsters' strength is in its size, its best player is 6-2 shooting guard Adam Hiatt, who is averaging 18.6 points per game. The Griffins also get 10 points per game from 6-8 center Nick Taggart and 6-6 forward Matt Sparrow. Westminster is one of the top defensive teams in the conference limiting teams to just 63.7 points per game.
"They are very active defensively," Huse said. "They mix up defenses and bring the fight to their opponent."
After facing the biggest team in the conference tonight, Northern gets the privilege of taking on the most athletic team in the conference on Saturday.
According to Huse, Lewis-Clark averages almost 10 slam dunks a game. In a game that Northern watched earlier this season, Huse said LCSC was putting back missed dunks with dunks.
"They are tough," Huse said. "They are athletic enough to create their own shots and really crash the boards. It certainly doesn't get any easier on Saturday."
LCSC is led by a pair of returning All-Americans in Jason Brazier and Sta'fon Lawson. The duo combines for 31 points and 12 rebounds a game. LCSC also features a pair of former Lights on its squad. Former Northern head coach Tim Walker is an assistant for the Warriors while Dustin Endsley, who played for Northern in 1999-2000, now plays for LCSC.
But it isn't just the Northern men who face a tough matchup this weekend. The Skylights will face a significant task this weekend in both Westminster and Lewis-Clark.
Northern is a perfect 5-0 and alone atop the Frontier Conference. While the climb to the top has been thrilling, Erickson knows that it is very easy to get knocked back down.
"Everybody is trying to tear us down right now because they want to be on top," Erickson said. "It's much easier to get to first place, than it is to hold it."
For Northern to hold onto their top spot they must defeat a Westminster squad that features one of the top players in the conference.
The Griffins are led by senior forward Rebekah Steenblik, who leads the conference in scoring at 23.1 points per game and also pulls down 9.1 rebounds per game. After getting married this summer, Steenblik almost didn't play this year. Unfortunately for teams in the Frontier, she decided to play and has been dominant in conference play.
"We're going to have contain her," Erickson said. "She's a quality player. She doesn't shoot a lot three's, but she can take you off the dribble and they look for her every time down the court. Obviously, we're going to have to know where she's at every time down the court."
The Griffins are far from a one-woman team, they also get 10 points and eight rebounds a game from Rachel Patterson and eight points a game from shooting guard Jessica Richter. Still Erickson believes that his defense can slow down Steenblik and company.
"When we play our full-court defense, we're looking for turnovers and doesn't matte who has the ball," Erickson said. "We want to get in an up-tempo style of game that forces people that don't normally shoot the ball to shoot it."
On Saturday, Northern faces the biggest and the best rebounding team in the Frontier Conference in Lewis-Clark State. The Warriors have six players taller than 6-0 and pull down a ridiculous 42.6 rebounds per game which leads the Frontier Conference.
"They put a lot shots up," Erickson said. "But 42 rebounds is still a ton. They're not only big, but they're also very quick."
It's a stark contrast to Northern, which ranks last in the Frontier in rebounding at 36 per game. In Northern's last two games they were outrebounded significantly and still won, but Erickson knows his team can't do that every night and still win.
"We've been stressing it," Erickson said. "We have to get into them and box out. We know we don't rebound well and you don't like to be last in anything. The girls know that if we don't have the ball, you can't run and that's our game."
LCSC is a picture of balance with 10 players playing over 12 minutes a game and three players averaging in double figures. Junior guard Jessica Foote leads LCSC at 13.7 points per game while the frontcourt of Shanta Coleman (5-11), Kyla Harris (5-11) and Kendra West (6-1) combine for 31 points and 18 rebounds per game.
"We have to utilize our quickness since we don't that kind of size," Erickson said. "Hopefully are quickness can get them into some foul trouble like we did against Rocky."