By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team didn't wait around to play a close game. The Skylights opened the season falling to their own alumni 70-69 in overtime at the MSU-Northern gymnasium on Saturday night.
Ronna Wright sank a pair of free throws with no time left on the clock to lift the alumni from a one-point deficit for the win.
The Skylights grabbed a one-point lead with just under 20 second left.
After a costly Northern turnover, alumni head coach Sherry Winn called a timeout to draw up a final play. However, that play never materialized and Wright was forced to take an awkward driving shot. Skylight senior Brett Vermandel blocked the shot, but was called for a block, giving Wright a pair of free throws.
"It was a great atmosphere," said Skylights head coach Mike Erickson. "The alumni were excited to get the win. It was a good game for us because we had to fight for every shot. We probably won't play that tough of competition for a month."
Indeed, the alumni squad featured a solid mixture of size, strength and experience and caused Northern problems from the beginning.
Erickson played all 13 of his players that suited up and used several different combinations. That, coupled with seven girls making their college debut and the typical first-game mistakes led to some difficult moments.
"We committed way too many turnovers," Erickson said. "When you try to play that many people, it's hard to get a lot of continuity."
The alumni built as much as a 10-point lead early in the game, but the Skylights fought back late in the game behind the strong play of Michelle VanDyke, who led Northern with 16 points, and some decent outside shooting.
Northern clung to a 60-58 lead with under 30 seconds remaining in the game. However, a turnover gave the alumni possession for a final shot. Tamecia Watkins penetrated and found Wright alone underneath the basket. She converted the layup despite being fouled. Unlike her final two free throws, Wright missed the bonus, setting up the Skylights for a final shot.
The Skylights worked the ball around the perimeter, but Jessi Reome's shot at the buzzer was short.
"I liked the fact that we battled back in the game when we got down," Erickson said. "Our defensive intensity was good and we showed pretty good chemistry."
Brett Vermandel added 12 points for the Skylights. The alumni were led by Shelly (Oakland) Stremcha's 17 points while Jodi Kruta chipped in with 12.
Erickson still saw plenty that needs to be fine-tuned before the his team's first official game. The alumni threw out a zone defense that Northern hasn't worked against this year. Erickson is also changing his regular offense.
"The zone kind of caught us off guard," Erickson said. "We're going to change our offense up. We tried to run some set plays for our posts, but we're so athletic that it kind of holds us back. I'm going to go to more of motion offense to take advantage of our athleticism."
Lights crush alumni
For all the drama and suspense of the women's game, the men's game had little of either. The Lights jumped out to a 12-point lead early and never looked back, coasting to a 97-59 win over the alumni.
Northern's size, athleticism and depth were too much for its older counterparts. The Lights scored with ease early and scored at will as the game went on.
"Alumni games can be tough because they get a little sloppy," said head coach Shawn Huse. "They tend to play a little lackadaisically on defense, which kind of carries over. We could get a shot whenever we wanted to."
To his team's credit, many of his player deferred those shots to teammates for even better shots.
"On the positive side, I thought we played very unselfishly and had a lot of ball movement," Huse said. "Even when the game was getting out of hand, we were still unselfish, which is great to see."
Huse started his four freshman who will redshirt this season. The foursome played early on before giving way to Northern's older players.
The Lights got impressive play from last year's redshirts. Walter Runsabove and Leo Bullchild. Both had solid games, scoring 13 and 10 points, respectively.
"Walter and Leo both shot the ball well," Huse said. "Dustin Sawejka also had a nice game for us."
Sawejka, a junior college transfer, was solid his Northern debut, scoring 14 points and grabbing several rebounds.
Despite being a team with several new faces, Huse was pleased with its performance.
"We're a few steps ahead of where we were last year," Huse said. "It's doesn't mean we're a better team, but we seem to be a little sharper in our execution."
A key member off of last year's team, Charlie Ereaux, also looked pretty sharp Ereaux scored 14 points to lead the alumni while Lee Larson and Art Krueger each added 10.
Northern will be in action this weekend when it opens its non-conference schedule against Red Deer College and the University of Lethbridge.