By Ryan Divish
All Montana State University-Northern men's basketball coach Shawn Huse wanted out of this past weekend was a split.
Winning one of the two games this weekend would signify that the Lights can truly compete for a Frontier Conference title. The Lights got that split, but the sting of their first conference loss won't leave them anytime soon.
Northern knocked off a solid Rocky Mountain College squad, 93-88, on Friday night at the Fortin Center in Billings.
With the win, the Lights grabbed sole possession of first place of the Frontier Conference. However, their stay at the top was short-lived as they lost to a hot-shooting Carroll College team on Saturday night, 94-84, to fall into a tie with Lewis-Clark State for first place in the conference with 4-1 records.
"That's what they always say: The key to success in the Frontier Conference is to win at home and split on the road," Huse said. "We really played hard and with effort all weekend."
The Lights were able to make sure of that split on Friday as they had five players finish in double figures while forcing Rocky into 17 first-half turnovers to pick up their second conference road win of the season.
"We played really well from start to finish," Huse said. "We really put a lot of pressure on them early and it paid off."
Northern's full-court pressure helped to negate Rocky's size advantage inside. Huse compared it to getting pressure on the quarterback and taking pressure off the defense backs in football. As Northern pressured Rocky's guards, they weren't able to get the ball to their big men inside as easily, which helped the Light post defenders. Northern raced to a 45-33 lead at halftime.
However, Northern ran into foul trouble late in the first half. With three players having three fouls, Huse was forced to back off some of that pressure early in the second half.
Consequently, Rocky made a run led by former KG standout Jake Stuart. Northern answered with back-to-back three-pointers from the Morinia brothers. But Rocky wouldn't go away. Stuart banked in a three-pointer with under 30 seconds remaining to cut Northern's lead to 91-88. Rocky forced a five-second call on the ensuing inbound play to set up a chance to tie the game.
However, Stuart's three-pointer was off and Northern's Reid Stovall grabbed the rebound. Stovall was fouled immediately and the freshman sank both free throws, his only points in the game, to ice the victory.
"We kept our poise down the stretch," Huse said. "They made that run, but we were able to stay focused. Larry and Lamar's threes were key shots. It definitely took a little wind out of their sails."
Larry Morinia finished with a game-high 25 points while brother Lamar finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Charlie Ereaux added 15 points, while Travis Moran and Kent Douglas chipped in with 13 and 12, respectively.
Stuart led Rocky with 24 points, while Greg Wood and Marshaun Jordan each added 17.
With one win down, Northern hoped to steal a win against preseason Frontier Conference favorite Carroll College. However, Northern played a little sluggishly while Carroll was shooting the Lights out.
The Saints, who play with the idea that the only bad shot is a shot not taken, knocked down 14 of 26 three-pointers en route to the win. Carroll's Gary Lynch continued his torrid shooting.
A night earlier, Lynch was a perfect 8-8 from three-point range against Great Falls. Against Northern, Lynch wasn't perfect from the outside but he was close - knocking down 11 of 16 shots, including eight of 11 from three-point range for a game-high 34 points.
"Carroll played a great basketball game," Huse said. "They deserved to win. However, I don't think we played our best game. Larry and Lamar scored some points but nobody really had a game that stood out."
The Saints came out hot early, holding the lead for much of the first half and holding a commanding 43-31 lead at halftime.
Huse switched to a 2-3 zone defense, which caused some problems for Carroll in the second half and allowed Northern to fight back into the game.
However, three-pointers from Lynch, Jeff Mason and Randy Ranalli put the game away.
Larry Morinia finished with 26 points while Lamar Morinia added 20. No other Lights player reached double figures.
Mason finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds while Ranalli added 17.
While Huse and his team were disappointed with the loss, he was happy to see how his team reacted to losing an emotional, intense game.
"We showed a lot of class and dignity in the game," Huse said. "I am very proud of them. I know it's not always easy to do, especially when you lose a game you wanted to win so badly. But they understood that Carroll got us this time, but there will be another time for us to get them."
Northern will be at home this weekend for a pair of crucial conference games against Lewis-Clark State and Westminster College.