By Ryan Divish
The Montana State University-Northern gymnasium is a great shooters gym. With a wall only a few feet behind the backboard, the dark colored background and the soft rims, it's a shooters' paradise.
Lights head coach Shawn Huse used to love coming to Havre when he was playing for Montana Tech. He loved that it was a shooters' gym as a player, maybe not as much as a coach.
Don't get Huse wrong, he loves being at home with the good crowds and the atmosphere. But it can get kind of tough when you play in a shooters gym and two of the better shooting teams in the Frontier Conference are coming to town.
The Lights host the Carroll College Saints and the Rocky Mountain College Bears in a pair of Frontier Conference games this weekend.
Carroll, 7-3 in the Frontier and 21-6 overall, is simply the best outside shooting team in the conference. The Saints can and will shoot from just about anywhere including the parking lot. But it's one thing to take shots from the outside, it's another thing to make them. And the Saints make their outside shots.
Carroll has made over 300 three-pointers on the season and the guard tandem of Gary Lynch and UM-Western transfer Randy Ranalli have accounted for over 200 of them. Lynch is third in the conference in scoring at 18 points per game while Ranalli averages 16 points a game.
But the Saints aren't just outside shooters, Carroll has a solid inside game behind senior Jeff Mason, who averages 17 points and eight rebounds a game.
"They've got some weapons," Huse said. "It really starts with their guards, but they are also solid inside with Mason and (Kevin) Downs. "
Carroll dealt Northern its first loss of the Frontier season with a 94-84 win in Helena. Although, the Lights only lost by 10, Huse said the game really wasn't as close as the score indicated.
"Of all of the conference games we played, that was the only game where we didn't go down to the wire," Huse said. "They had the lead the entire game, controlled the tempo and dictated the whole game."
Looking back at tapes of the game, Huse thought his team looked sluggish defensively. He attributed some of it to the road trip that had them drive to Helena from Billings after playing Rocky down to the wire.
"We gave them some uncontested looks," Huse said. "Uncontested shots cannot happen; they're too good of shooters."
Huse doesn't expect his team to be sluggish tonight.
"I would like to think that our defense will be a lot sharper and more intense," Huse said. "Being at home and the first game of the series, I would like to think we should have some good energy. We can't afford to sit back and let them bring it at us. We have to take it to them and force them into some bad shots."
If facing Carroll isn't difficult tonight, Northern faces, perhaps, the hottest team in the Frontier Conference in the Rocky Mountain College Bears.
Rocky has won five of its last six games including a pair of scintillating wins over Frontier Conference leaders - Lewis-Clark State and Westminster.
After struggling early, the Bears are starting to play well at the right time, which doesn't surprise Huse in the least.
"They are still the same team that went to Missoula and only lost to the Grizzlies by three-points," Huse said.
Northern was one of the teams that knocked off Rocky early in the season thanks to forcing the Bears into some turnovers.
"I think they were surprised a little by pressure," Huse said. "It certainly bothered them."
Rocky features one of the most balanced attacks in the Frontier Conference. The Bears have size inside in former UM player Spencer Allred and Beau McFaydean, they have outside shooting in former KG standout Jake Stuart and they have athleticism in Marshaun Jordan.
"Defending that balance is really tough," Huse said. "They're big, can shoot from the outside and Marshaun Jordan may go to the glass harder than anyone I've ever seen."
Northern will be back at full strength as guard Zach McLean will return to action after missing last weekend with a knee injury.
"Getting Zach back is big if for no other reason than just giving us another ball handler," Huse said. "We commited 15 turnovers in the second half against Western and I just don't think we do that if Zach's out there."
Saturday night's game will also mark the last home game for seniors Charlie Ereaux and Kent Douglas.
"It's a big night for Kent and Charlie," Huse said. "I've really enjoyed getting to know them this year. When we first came in, we wanted to start fresh. We didn't know who to invite back. A lot of people told us how we needed to keep those guys and I am thankful they did. I only wish I had them both for more than one year."