By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Home court advantage works best when you actually play a few games at home. For the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team, it's a welcome return to the friendly confines of the MSU-Northern gym, albeit a slightly unfamiliar one.
The Skylights have played just two games at home this season and, despite practicing in the gym every day, it will be a somewhat unfamiliar setting when they host Concordia University College tonight in the Skylights Shootout tournament.
"Last season, we didn't really play well at home until the conference season," said head coach Mike Erickson. "We haven't played many games at home this year and it's going to be a little different. It's a different place when there are fans and people in the stands."
Concordia comes into Havre with a 10-2 record in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference. The Thunder sit atop the ACAC North Division and average 71 points per game while shooting 52 percent from the field.
Still, Concordia is a relative unknown to Erickson, who couldn't get much information, let alone game film, on the Thunder.
"I really don't know a lot about them," Erickson said. "I do know they have some size. I am sure they are like most Canadian teams. They are usually very aggressive and like to press. They are going to come at us, that's for certain."
The Thunder gets its offense from a variety of places. No player averages in double figures, but instead there are several players averaging six to eight points per game, led by 6-0 forward Lisa Francis and point guard Amber Smart.
One thing Erickson doesn't want his team to do is overlook Concordia. It's easy to do, especially with a game with Minot State University, coached by Northern hall of famer Sheila Green-Gerding, looming on Saturday night.
"I know the girls really want to get Minot, but we still have to focus on Concordia first," Erickson said.
But after tonight, the Skylights will have no trouble motivating themselves to play Minot. The Beavers handed Northern a 75-56 whipping in Minot about two weeks ago.
"We did not play well at all," Erickson said. "We just weren't mentally ready and the ladies all agreed that we need to make an adjustment in being prepared to play."
In its two losses this season, Northern has been plagued by turnovers. There are always a few more turnovers early in the season, but these weren't the type of turnovers that Erickson wanted to see.
"They were unforced turnovers," Erickson said. "We just threw the ball away. I don't think they forced a single turnover."
Two weeks ago, Northern was still feeling its way through its set offense. With a passel of new faces, the cohesion would take time. It appeared to get better in last week's win over Black Hills State as the offense showed signs it was beginning to click.
However, the cohesion may take a bit of a hit with the possibility of two starters missing. Transfer Michele VanDyke suffered a broken nose in last Friday's loss to University of Mary. She played the following night against Black Hills and scored a season-high 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. But VanDyke had to have surgery this week and it is highly doubtful she will play.
Also hurting is senior point guard Anna Bateman. After battling injuries for much of her career, Bateman was completely healthy last week. However, she has been bothered by the flu this week and hasn't practiced much. Erickson said that Bateman's competitive nature probably wouldn't allow something like the flu to keep her off the court.
Erickson is also banking on the competitive nature of his players to motivate them for Saturday night's game.
"These girls are so competitive and they come from winning backgrounds," Erickson said. "I know they want to come out and avenge the earlier loss."
For Northern to do that, the Skylights must take care of the basketball and handle Minot's defensive pressure.
"I am hoping we play smarter," Erickson said. "We tried to run our transition game without any guidance and it turned into a free-for-all. We threw the ball away and when we didn't do that we took terrible shots."
Besides handling the Beavers' defensive pressure, Erickson would also like his team to apply a little defensive pressure.
"We want to pressure them into not running their offense," Erickson said. "They like to work the shot clock down to 10 seconds. We want to take away their inside game and make them shoot some quick shots from outside, basically mess with the tempo of their offense."
Minot State is led by former Malta standout LeAnn Pekovitch. The 5-7 guard/forward won't wow you statistically, but she makes her teammates better and makes things happen on the floor.
"She's pretty tough," Erickson said. "The ball always goes through her hands on their offense and she makes them go."
Beside Pekovitch, Minot also gets production from senior guard Andrea Sebelius and forward Jennifer Sundahl.
The Beavers play with the same relentless intensity that Green-Gerding played with during her Skylight days.
"Sheila's such a competitor and it definitely rubs off on her kids," Erickson said. "I'm sure they'll have plenty of people cheering for her. I know the ladies are very fired up to play them again. It should be a fun weekend."
The University of Great Falls Argos will be the fourth team in this weekend's tournament. UGF is led by former MSU-Northern player Nichole Neill and former Big Sandy standout Sasha Ritter.
UGF will face Minot tonight at 6 p.m. with the Northern-Concordia game to follow at 8 p.m. Saturday night, UGF will take on Concordia at 6 p.m. with Northern and Minot tipping off at 8 p.m.