By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team needs to put its feet back on the pedals, because the next game isn't one it can coast through.
After a pair of relatively easy wins this past weekend at the Rocky Mountain College Alumni Food for the Holidays tournament, the Lights will face some significantly tougher competition when they face the Utah Valley State College Wolverines in a non-conference game in Orem, Utah.
UVSC is in its first year as an NCAA Division I school. After competing in the Scenic West Athletic Conference as a junior college team, the Wolverines are making the transition to college basketball's highest level this year.
An 0-3 start to the season has made the Wolverines D-I debut a little less enjoyable, but their losses have come to some very good teams.
NCAA Division II power Kennesaw State, Boise State and NCAA tournament qualifier Brigham Young University have kept UVSC out of the win column. But the Wolverines played all three opponents tough for stretches in each game.
"They were only down six to BYU at halftime," said Lights head coach Shawn Huse. "It might be their first year, but they're still a Division I program and they have players with Division I talent."
Indeed, two key players - Ronnie Price and Jon Bell - return from last year's squad to lead the Wolverines.
Price, a 6-1 shooting guard, leads UVSC in scoring at 18 points per game. Against BYU, Price scored 26 points with 20 coming in the first half. He can score in a variety of ways and is someone the Lights will make a conscious effort to slow down.
At 6-6, Bell is a force inside and plays much bigger than his height indicates. He is shooting 63 percent from the field on the season and is the Wolverines leading rebounder averaging five per game.
UVSC gets additional help from junior Carl Lee, who returned to action against BYU after missing the first two games because of a knee injury.
"They're very athletic," Huse said. "We know that Price and Bell are going to take a lot of their shots. We need to know where they are at on the floor at all times without giving up easy shots to anyone else."
Defense has been Huse's biggest concern this season thus far. Against better teams, Northern suffers stretches of inconsistent defense, turning games into shootouts. Northern's opponents are averaging 84.1 points per game, a number which dropped significantly last weekend.
"We have to be more consistent defensively," Huse said. "We can't afford those lapses against good teams."
In contrast, the Northern offense has given Huse less to worry about. The Lights average a gaudy 96.1 points per game with five players averaging double figures, led by Larry and Lamar Morinia averaging 19 and 16 points per game, respectively. Forward Dustin Sawejka averages 15 points per game while center Trenton Harbaugh averages 11 points and a team-high seven rebounds per game. Transfer Berhane Williams chips in with 10 points and six rebounds per game off the bench.
Northern's offense will face a frenzied UVSC pressure the entire game. It's something that Northern must handle to have a chance.
"They put a ton of pressure on the ball," Huse said. "They try to force turnovers and use them to set up their transition game. The key for us is to handle that pressure and take care of the basketball."
Huse knows he and his team are walking into a potential ambush against a team desperate to get its first win.
"They have no conference affiliation so they were scrambling to get games this season," Huse said. "Consequently, they've had to play some tough teams already. I am sure they are pointing to this game against an NAIA school as a chance to get their first win. They're going to be a very hungry team."
Northern and UVSC tip off tonight at 7:05 p.m. and can be heard on the Internet at http://www.uvsc.edu/athletics/broadcast.html.