By Ryan Divish
Don't give the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team any of this talk about David vs. Goliath.
The Skylights aren't going to be intimidated when they host the sixth-ranked UM-Western Bulldogs tonight at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
The consensus preseason favorite in the Frontier Conference, UM-Western hasn't done anything this season to dispel that prognostication. The Bulldogs sport a stellar 16-1 record on the season with their only loss coming from NCAA Division I Idaho State. One of those 16 wins include a 77-63 win over Northern at the Mount Royal College tournament on Jan. 4.
It was a loss that actually gave the Skylights some confidence heading into tonight's game. Northern led by as many 11 points in that game before the fatigue of playing three games in three days set in and the Skylights wilted down the stretch.
"It was really good playing that game against them," said Skylights head coach Mike Erickson. "We played with them for most of the game, and we aren't going to be intimidated by their ranking and their record."
But this is the conference season now and Erickson knows that UM-Western will be more than ready when they take the floor.
The Bulldogs are led by All-American forward Bobbi Suhr, who does everything for Western but drive the bus to the game.
Suhr, the Frontier's leading scorer at 19.9 points per game, is the unquestioned leader of the Bulldogs and probably the best player in the league. She will definitely garner some defensive attention from Northern.
"We have to know where Suhr is at on the floor at all times," Erickson said. "She doesn't hurt you right away. She hurts you in the last 15 seconds of the shot clock. If Western doesn't get a shot right away, Suhr is the only one they look for and she just kills you.
With Suhr it's pick your poison: she is strong enough to bang and score inside and you certainly can't allow her an open look from three-point range.
"We need to make somebody else beat us," Erickson said. "We know Suhr is going to score some, but we have to force their other players to step up and beat us."
The rest of the Bulldogs certainly can do that. Suhr was limited to four points by Lewis-Clark State, but UM-Western still pulled out a 75-74 win thanks to the efforts of center Jill Feller, forward Karly Tait and the guard tandem of Shyla Epler and Vanika Dickerson.
At 6-4, Feller, a transfer from Portland State, is an intimidating presence in the middle.
"Feller doesn't do anything fancy," Erickson said. "She fills up a whole lot of space in the middle and really closes down the lane."
Tait is a physical player who likes to attack the basket while Dickerson and Epler can both shoot the three-point shot.
Besides talent, UM-Western is no stranger to tough games or playing from behind.
"They play really even keel," Erickson said. "They are just steady, it's a reflection of how Suhr plays. They don't panic when they're down and they just force you to make silly mistakes."
Following the matchup against UM-Western, Northern will host Montana Tech on Saturday.
The Orediggers sport a 3-16 record on the season, but it's a record that is a bit misleading. Tech hasn't shied away from playing tough competition this year having played against several NCAA Division I and II schools.
"I can't believe how tough of a schedule Tech has played," Erickson said. "They play everybody. Their record doesn't reflect their team. They're much better than that."
The Diggers are led by senior Stacy Ferentchak and Melissa Ritter while getting solid contributions from a pair of freshmen in Johanna Fryer and Marcie Alzheimer.
Ferentchak, a 5-9 wing player, can score from outside and is also adept at driving to the basket. At 6-0, Ritter can score inside and is Tech's best low-post presence.
Both Fryer and Alzheimer are 6-0 or taller and will also cause some matchup problems for the Skylights.
Perhaps the biggest problem that faces Northern against Tech is the possibility of a letdown following tonight's game against Western.
"No matter if we win or lose, we have to refocus on Tech because they are a good team," Erickson said.
Northern will continue to push the basketball and play a full-court game as they have in the past few weeks. In fact, they want to play an even faster paced game.
"We watched the film against Great Falls and we though we were pushing the ball, but there were times we were walking the ball up," Erickson said. "We want to play even more up-tempo this weekend."
Both tonight and tomorrow night's games will tip off at 6 p.m. and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.