By Ryan Divish
Most teams set goals at the beginning of the season. Some are big, like winning the conference, some are small like winning all their home games.
The Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team is no different. The Skylights set a number of goals at the beginning of the season ranging from making the national tournament to getting better every game.
But midway through the non-conference season, Skylights head coach Mike Erickson decided on a new short term goal for his team. With a 3-8 record, Erickson told his team their new goal should be to get a .500 record before the conference season starts. With seven games remaining on their preseason schedule, it didn't seem that difficult to achieve.
Since then, the Skylights won five of six games - including five wins in a row - to improve its record to 8-9 on the season with one non-conference game remaining before Saturday night's Frontier Conference opener against the University of Great Falls.
While the conference season is obviously important, Erickson wants to pick up a win tonight when the Skylights host Lethbridge Community College at 7 p.m. at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
"We made the goal of getting to .500 in our non-conference record and we want to get that first," Erickson said. "The Great Falls game is important but we aren't looking past this game."
Lethbridge won't make it easy for Northern to get that ninth win. Erickson saw them last week at the Mount Royal College tournament and was impressed.
Lethbridge is led by feisty point guard Kim Bridge, who leads LCC in scoring (14.4 ppg) and assists (5.57 apg). Lethbridge also gets solid play from Kathryn Bekkering in the post.
"They were the best Canadian team at that tournament," Erickson said. "They were tough and scrappy and really played hard. And, to tell the truth we have struggled at home this season. I don't know why, but we haven't played well there since the alumni game."
However, much has changed since the alumni game. Northern has weathered injuries, a shooting slump and the loss of players to academics.
At the Mount Royal tournament, three players - Davina Shoemake, Khadiga Mohamed and Francine KillEagle - were forced to sit out because of academic eligibility questions. Mohamed was recently cleared to play this weekend while KillEagle will sit out this weekend as her situation is still being examined. Shoemake's Skylight career, however, is done.
"You hate to see that happen to a senior," Erickson said. "But academics is still the priority here. Basketball is a privilege.
The situation forced Erickson to pull former Box Elder star Kristie Pullin out of her redshirt and into action. And Pullin responded, playing splendidly in Canada. For the Skylights to be successful, she will be expected to continue that play this weekend.
Besides activating Pullin, Erickson believes the situation also made his team reexamine its priorities a little.
"When something that drastic happens, you tend to stop taking things for granted," Erickson said. "The girls have been really motivated because they realize how special playing basketball in college is and how fast it can be taken away."
Although Erickson wants to win tonight's game, he knows the importance of Saturday night's game in Great Falls.
"We know it's a whole other level in conference," Erickson said. "To win games in the Frontier, you have to be ready to play well every night."
Northern faced the University Great Falls earlier this season in the Frontier Conference tip-off tournament held in Havre. In that game, Northern forced UGF into 30 turnovers and pulled away in the second half for a 76-64 win. The Skylights also got Karen Sauvola, one of UGF's top players, into foul trouble and limited her to only 16 minutes of playing time.
Besides Sauvola, UGF also gets solid contributions from guard Kim Freeman, former Havre High standout Jayla McPherson and Chinook grad Erin Acra.
"We want to take it to them offensively," Erickson said. "Our post players have been playing a lot better lately, so we want to establish that early."
Mostly, Northern wants to push the basketball and force the tempo on both sides of the ball.
"We'll pick our spots to press," Erickson said. "But when Kristie is in there we will because she excels at it."
The Lights will also be opening their Frontier Conference season at Great Falls.
Northern, 13-5 on the season, will face a UGF team that has had academic problems of its own.
The Argos will be without standout forward Will Butler for the remainder of the season after he failed to meet academic requirements during the fall semester. But UGF did get a lift when Bryan Simanton (6-7, 240) was cleared to play.
UGF, 5-11 on the season, is led by guard Danny Ball (15.4 ppg) and gets solid contriubtions from Pathe Yatera and Andre Gilchrist.
The Lights are in the midst of a three-game winning streak and will be looking to carry their non-conference success into the conference season.
The Skylights will tip off against Great Falls on Saturday at 6 p.m. with the Lights to follow at 8 p.m. at the McLaughlin Center on the UGH campus. Both games can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.