By Ryan Divish
Loose balls, bodies on the floor - basically organized chaos: That's what Montana State University-Northern women's basketball coach Mike Erickson likes to see.
The Skylights used a nasty, relentless full-court press to pick up a pair of Frontier Conference home wins this weekend, including a stellar upset of sixth-ranked University of Montana-Western.
It wasn't pretty at times. Northern forced both Western and Montana Tech into a full-court, rag-tag style of basketball that the Skylights have played and flourished with in the past two weeks.
"We have to play that way," Erickson said. "That's our style of game. We've found our niche and we have to get after it. You're going to give up layups and easy shots once in awhile, but if you can keep the ball in the hands of people that don't usually shoot it, you're going to win some games. Especially against a team like Western, which is more comfortable slowing it down and getting into a set offense."
Indeed, the Skylights put together perhaps their best game of the season, defeating UM-Western 86-84 on Friday night.
Going into the game Erickson, upon the suggestion of assistant coach Warren Quick, put a stifling full-court press on the Bulldogs, hoping to force the tempo of the game to a faster level.
The game plan worked. Western, which executes with brutal precision in the half-court offense, was forced to play a full-court game.
Northern hurried, harassed and harangued the Bulldogs into 31 turnovers and basically made the pace of play for UM-Western about as uncomfortable as sitting on a cactus.
It seemed like the Skylights picked up the Bulldog guards the moment they stepped off the bus.
"Our press killed them," Erickson said. "They struggled with it all game. That's the first time we've been able to do that this season."
Northern forced Western into 14 first-half turnovers and, thanks to Anna Bateman, held a 45-44 lead at halftime.
Bateman, who had been mired in a shooting slump, scored 13 consecutive points in the first half, keeping the Skylights close early.
"I brought (Anna) into the office and told her she has to get her looks and take her shots," Erickson said. "It didn't matter if they hadn't been going in. With Kristie (Pullin) in there now, Anna doesn't have to do all the ball handling. She can focus more on scoring."
Said Bateman: "It was a conference game. It was just time for me to start making shots. I just got into a rhythm. It felt great."
But this wasn't the first time Northern held a lead on the Bulldogs at halftime. Two weeks ago in the championship game of the Mount Royal College tournament, Northern led UM-Western at halftime only to see it slip away in the second half and lose 77-63.
"I reminded the girls we were up on them by one at halftime in Canada," Erickson said. "The game is won in the second half and you have to play it until the end."
Northern seemed to respond to Erickson's words. The Skylights came out sizzling to open the second half. A Bateman steal and layup, five points from Miranda Valley and Bateman's third three-pointer of the game gave the Skylights a 76-62 lead with eight minutes remaining in the game.
Still, Western wasn't ranked sixth in the NAIA without a reason. The Bulldogs erased the Skylight 14-point lead in five minutes to tie the game at 80 with 3:03 remaining.
Northern grabbed a brief two-point lead on a layup from Brettney Vermandel. But Western answered by going to All-American Bobbi Suhr. After being held relatively quiet for most of the game, Suhr put back her own miss to tie the game at 82. Northern took the lead on a score inside from Khadiga Mohamed. But once again Suhr answered, this time scoring on an impossible scoop shot inside to tie the game at 84.
Northern called timeout, but instead of setting up a set play, Erickson decided to go with its normal motion offense.
"We're not at that level where we can execute a secret play like that," Erickson said. "We just went with our normal offense."
The philosophy worked. As Bateman drove for the final shot she was fouled by Western, earning a pair of free throws. The University of Idaho transfer calmly sank both free throws to give the Skylights a two-point lead with 3.2 seconds remaining.
"I didn't even think about them," Bateman said. "Missing them never crossed my mind. Usually it would, but I was really calm. I just shot them like they were any other free throws."
Western's last-ditch effort ended when Karly Tait's three-pointer from 20 feet clanged off the side of the rim.
Bateman finished with a game-high 29 points and five steals while teammate Lindsey Buehler continued her strong play with 13 points and a game-high eight rebounds off the bench. Mohamed and Valley scored 12 and 11 points, respectively, for Northern.
Vanika Dickerson led the Bulldogs with 20 points, while center Jill Feller added 17. Suhr worked hard for every one of her 16 points, and Tait chipped in with 11.
While the win was the biggest of Erickson's short tenure with the Skylights, he was quick to point out that they had another game left to play on the weekend.
"The first thing I said was that we could be in the same position as Western in 24 hours," Erickson said.
But Northern quelled any possibilities of a letdown early against Montana Tech. The Skylights grabbed the lead early in the first half and never looked back, trouncing Tech, 90-62, on Saturday to complete the sweep on the weekend.
The Skylights continued to press, forcing the Orediggers into 29 turnovers while shooting 52 percent to pick up the victory.
"We didn't let down," Erickson said. "We were a little tired, but we overcame it and really showed a lot of heart and desire in the game."
Northern pulled away from Tech in the first half as the full-court pressure was too much for the Diggers to handle.
Bateman continued her torrid shooting, scoring a game-high 20 points including a perfect 3-3 from three-point range. Katie Zilkoski and Mohamed combined to score 26 points while Pullin scored 13 points, dished out four assists and had four steals off the bench.
The Skylights continued to play their up-tempo, run and gun and tons of fun style of play. Erickson wouldn't have it any other way. They are going to force teams to play their way, or not play at all.
"I don't care if we are playing Western, or we're playing my junior high school in Vida, Montana, it doesn't matter. We play our style, run our stuff and play our game."
After starting the season 4-7, the Skylights improved their record to 12-9 including a perfect 3-0 in the Frontier Conference.
"We're a completely different team now," Bateman said. "This lets teams know to watch out for us and that our record doesn't reflect what kind of team we have now."