By Ryan Divish
For a good portion of the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team, last week's, 92-62, win over University of Great Falls was their first Frontier Conference game.
The Lights played with an intensity, especially on the defensive end, that they hadn't all season. However, the true test will be to carry that intensity for the remaining 13 conference games including tonight's matchup against the UM-Western Bulldogs.
"I can't just say enough about these guys," said Light head coach Shawn Huse. "For most of them it was their first conference game, and they played like they had been in the league for three or four years. But we have to keep that intensity up for the rest of the year."
Huse and his team know full well that tonight's game won't be as easy as the win over UGF.
The Bulldogs, coached by former Lights assistant Mark Durham, took an early hit this season after losing a pair of all-conference performers in starting point guard Josh Keller and forward Neil Christiaens to injury. Despite losing almost 60 percent of its offense in Keller and Christiaens, the Bulldogs still remain a competitive team coming in with a 7-10 record.
"Coach Durham's teams have always played with a never say die attitude," Huse said. "They lost a couple of key guys to injury and right now they're playing with nothing to lose. They're just going out and having fun and playing without fear. A team playing like that is dangerous."
Despite the losses, the Bulldogs still have plenty of talent and weapons in their lineup. Sophomore Brandon Day leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 16.6 points per game. At 6-6, Day leads UM-Western in rebounding and is strong inside. Joining Day up front is 6-6 forward Kevin Flatow. A former Montana State football player, Flatow is plenty strong and likes to bang inside.
The Bulldogs also get solid contributions from a pair of former North East B standouts. Former Cut Bank star Jess Davidson has played quality minutes for Western. Fellow freshman and former Fairfield star Tyler Palmer has also been a scoring threat for the Bulldogs.
"They are all versatile players," Huse said of the Bulldogs. "They all have good feet, can shoot off the dribble and have the freedom to get their own shot."
UM-Western has traditionally played an up-tempo style and hasn't shied away from shooting the ball early and often. But that style is also works in Northern's favor.
"We're very comfortable playing at that pace," Huse said. "Our main concern has been defending their movement. They use a lot of ball screens, move well without the ball and are just really active on offense."
On Saturday, Northern will face a Montana Tech squad that is also playing with nothing to lose. The Orediggers, 8-12 on the season, also lost a player a key player for the semester when forward David Martin failed to maintain his academic eligibility.
"He was kind of their main post player," Huse said. "That will definitely hurt them."
Tech is led by guards Jeremy Rudolph and Shane Sutton while also getting a solid contributions from Pat Weber.
Huse is pretty familiar with Tech having been an assistant there for three years and recruiting some of the current Oredigger players.
"They still run a lot of the backdoor cuts from the old days," Huse said. "They've been playing some zone on defense so I think they're trying to keep the score down."
Northern has faced plenty of zone defense early in the season and should be ready.
Offensively, Northern has shot the basketball extremely well as of late. Larry Morinia is leading the Frontier in scoring at 20.1 points per game while Charlie Ereaux is chipping in with 13.1 points per game.
But Huse knows there are going to be games that his team won't shoot as well it has been, that's when the defensive intensity the Lights displayed in last week's 93-63 win over Great Falls must be constant.
"We're going to have nights we don't shoot well, we have already this year," Huse said. "But as long we can play defense like we're capable of we'll still be in the game."
Tonight and tomorrow's game tip off at 8 p.m. and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.