By Ryan Divish
A month and a half ago, if you had told Montana State University-Northern women's basketball coach Mike Erickson his team would be 5-0 and atop the Frontier Conference, he wouldn't have called you crazy, but he might have thought you were knocking on the door.
But that is exactly where his Skylight team is with a stellar sweep of a pair of conference road games this past weekend.
Northern avenged an earlier loss to Rocky Mountain College, beating the Bears, 77-68, Friday night in Billings. A night later, the Skylights shook off some fatigue and a 14-point deficit to defeat Carroll College, 78-70, in Helena to grab sole possession of first place in the Frontier Conference.
It seems like a hundred years ago when the Skylights started the season with a 3-8 record. Since then Northern has won 10 of its last 11 games, including six consecutive wins.
"We really learned from our mistakes early in the season," Erickson said. "A lot of teams lose games but don't learn anything from them. The losses made us a better team."
Rocky, which handed the Skylights one of those eight losses, was a little surprised this game. This Skylight team was a far cry from the Skylight team it faced on Dec. 7.
Northern, behind its new up-tempo full-court game, jumped out to an early 17-5 lead and never trailed throughout.
"All of the game film Rocky had was from the nonconference season," Erickson said. "They haven't seen us play the way we have played the last 10 games. They didn't expect it."
Despite the early run, Rocky wouldn't simply roll over. The players battled back, outrebounding Northern and not allowing the Skylights to get into their fast-break offense. The Skylights held a slight 34-32 lead at halftime.
"We just had another one of those three-minute droughts where we didn't do anything right," Erickson said. "It doesn't matter who or where you play, in this conference every game will be tough. They made a run to get back into the game."
However, Northern clamped down defensively in the second half, limiting Rocky to 28 percent shooting. For the game, Rocky was a paltry three of 30 from three-point range.
"We weren't as aggressive on defense in our half-court defense early in the game," Erickson said. "We weren't used to playing that way. But we got more aggressive in the second half."
As Northern's defense picked up, so did its offense. The Skylights outscored Rocky 43-36 in the second half to pick up the win.
Anna Bateman led Northern players in double figures with 17 points, four assists and five steals. Khadiga Mohamed had a solid game off the bench with 13 points, while Katie Zilkoski and Miranda Valley scored 12 and 10 points, respectively.
Rocky was led by Alisha Hayden with a game-high 26 points. No other Bear player scored in double figures.
Erickson has always said he just wants to steal some road wins. Saturday night against Carroll, Northern had to do exactly that, steal the win.
Northern forced 17 steals, including nine by Bateman, to rally from a 14-point deficit to sneak away with the win and the lead in the Frontier Conference race.
"We showed a lot of guts," Erickson said. "The ladies know that if you play hard all the time, you'll have a chance to win."
Besides her nine steals, Bateman scored 17 points and dished out nine assists.
"Anna is such a strong all-around player," Erickson said. "She is playing so well right now, the girls are really feeding off of her."
Mohamed continued her strong play with 14 points while Kristie Pullin added 12.
Carroll was led by Tara Zoanni, who finished with a game-high 27 points. Former Big Sandy star Charla Ray added 14 points and 15 rebounds, while former Chester standout Carly VanDyke added 12.
Northern will be at home on Friday and Saturday to host Lewis-Clark State and Westminster College for a pair of key conference games.