By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
There's a reason the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team was practicing like it was the beginning of the season. Head coach Mike Erickson had no other choice but go back to basics with his team following consecutive losses last weekend at the Frontier Conference Tip-off Tournament.
With the Skylights heading to Walla Walla, Wash.,for Saturday's matchup against Whitman College, Erickson hopes the focus on fundamentals this week will translate to a much needed win.
"The little things are killing us," Erickson said. "We've had lapses on fundamental things like boxing out and playing defense. We started out from square one this week. We went back to our basic stuff and retaught it again."
Hopefully, the refresher course will play dividends against a very young Missionary team.
Whitman has just two seniors on its roster along with five sophomores and five freshmen.
But the youngsters can play. Sophomore guard Laura Vertatschitsch and freshman guard Katie Patneaude lead Whitman in scoring, averaging 17 points and 13 points per game, respectively. Vertatschitsch started six games last year, but fought through a previous knee injury. This year she is completely healthy and is one of Whitman's most complete players. Patneaude, a 5-10 guard, is also recovering from a knee injury in high school. Fellow freshman Sarah Laird is also averaging double figures at 10 points per game at the forward spot. Despite playing inside, Laird leads Whitman in three-pointers made and is more than comfortable on the perimeter.
"They're 3-1 right now," Erickson said. "So you know they are going to be more than competitive."
Whitman is averaging 70 points on the season and has wins over Colorado College, Concordia College of Illinois and Eastern Oregon University.
Slowing down Whitman's offensive production will be key for Northern, since the Skylights haven't done an overwhelming job of it thus far this season.
Northern is allowing opponents to score an average of 64 points per game, but that number has increased steadily in the past few games. The Skylights have given up 78 or more points in four of their last five games. It's a trend that must change.
"We need to get better defensively," Erickson said. "Our defense is keeping teams in games. We need to understand the concept of team defense and pick up the intensity a little."
Another factor in opponents' offensive success is Northern's rebounding or lack thereof. The Skylights were badly out-rebounded in their last two games, which aggravates Erickson greatly, considering how tall his team is, and how much he stressed rebounding all year.
"There's no reason we're getting out-rebounded the way we are," Erickson said. "We're just not boxing out. You have to have that attitude that you're going to every time down the court. Rebounding isn't just about size or else we'd be outrebounding teams. But it's more than size. And until we start boxing out, we're going to struggle."
With Whitman's size limitations, Erickson made it very clear what his team needs to do offensively.
"We are going to pound it inside every chance we get," Erickson said. "And then we're going to pound it in some more."
Erickson is looking for center Megan Valgardson and forward Michelle VanDyke to have big games. Valgardson is averaging 12.6 points and 6.4 rebounds a game, while VanDyke is still recovering from a badly broken nose.
The focus on the inside should free things up on the outside for freshman guard Jessi Reome, who leads Northern in scoring at 13.8 points per game off the bench. The versatile Khadiga Mohamed is averaging 10.9 points per game.
The Skylights are relatively healthy going into the game. Senior Brettney Vermandel sprained her ankle last weekend, but should be ready to go, while VanDyke is getting better with every day.
"We beat Whitman here last year," Erickson said. "But we have to go to their place this time and that's a very long road trip. We need to come out focused and ready to play right away."