By Ryan Divish
The Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team got a taste of reality this weekend and it didn't taste very good.
The Lights dropped a pair of tough Frontier Conference games to Westminster College and Lewis-Clark State.
For the first time this season, the Lights have lost three games in a row and during that streak it's the little things that have hurt them.
On Friday night, the Lights let a nine-point second-half lead slip away in a 58-55 loss to Westminster. The following night Northern shot a forgettable 56 percent from the free throw line in a 93-90 loss to Lewis-Clark squad that was missing two of its best players to injury.
"This weekend exposed some things," said Lights head coach Shawn Huse. "We knew coming in we needed to play nearly flawless basketball and we didn't. We had a lot of little things go wrong. When you're as undersized as we are, the little mistakes seem to be magnified."
Undersized in terms of height and weight, that is. Northern was in position to win both games this weekend thanks to a mixture of guile and guts, but against Westminster physical size won out.
The Griffins used their significant size advantage inside to wear down the Lights in the second half after Northern led for much of the first half.
That size also opened up the outside, allowing Westminster to get back into the game. With Northern leading by nine, the Griffins got four consecutive three-pointers, including three from Shane Humphreys, to take a 45-42 lead with just over 10 minutes remaining.
With the lead, Westminster slowed the pace of play down and cut the number of possessions down. A pair of scores inside from Matt Sparrow and another score inside from Adam Hiatt gave Westminster a five-point lead with six minutes left to play. Northern trimmed the lead to one with two free throws from Kent Douglas and a Charlie Ereaux jumpshot.
Sparrow answered with a score inside, but Northern grabbed a 55-54 lead back on a tough drive from Larry Morinia and two free throws by Ereaux. But Hiatt scored on a driving basket to take the lead. Northern was unable to convert on the next possession and ended up fouling Humphreys, who made both free throws.
The Lights had a shot to tie the game and designed a play to get a three-pointer for Ereaux with 12 seconds remaining, but his shot from the corner was short and the clock expired as Northern desperately scrambled to get the rebound.
Sparrow led all scorers with 19 points while Humphreys added 16. Larry Morinia led Northern with 15 points while brother Lamar added 13. Travis Moran added 11 points.
Saturday started out much like Friday as Northern controlled the game for most of the first half. Lewis-Clark, who was already playing without All-American forward Sta'fon Lawson, also lost its other starting forward, Lester Bruno, after he suffered an injury during warm-ups. The Warriors' other All-American, Jason Brazier, was held in check, scoring only two points before fouling out.
However, Lewis-Clark didn't seem to lose a beat. The Warriors found production in other places, namely its reserves. Ricky Frazier came off the bench to score 25 points while former Light Dustin Endsley made the most of his rare start, scoring 19 points including two key three-pointers to lead Lewis-Clark to a strong second half.
Northern led by as many as 10 points in the first half and held a 43-37 halftime lead, but Lewis-Clark opened the second half with a 10-3 run to take a 47-46 lead.
From that point neither team would lead by more than four points and the lead changed hands six times. Lewis-Clark knocked down five three-pointers in the second half with Endsley, Frazier, Brian Meneely and Chris Allen scoring all but four of the Warriors' 56 second-half points.
Northern stayed in the game largely behind Ereaux. After shooting an icy 2-10 on Friday night, Ereaux put together his finest game of the season, scoring 25 points including 10 straight during one stretch.
"Charlie really played well," Huse said. "He's reached a higher level with his game. Hopefully some of the other guys will follow his lead."
But Northern's free-throw shooting would ultimately do them in. The Lights made just 16 of 29 free throws in the second half, which included some key misses at inopportune times.
"Obviously, we'd like to shoot better from the free-throw line," Huse said. "But when our opponents lose two of their best players to injury and comes into your own gym, you should win."
Northern wasn't without its opportunities late in the game, but couldn't quite get over the hump to win. Northern's final opportunity to tie the game with 2.6 seconds remaining ended when Frazier picked off Zach McLean's full-court pass and time expired.
"This is the truest test of a team," Huse said of his team's three-game losing streak. "We'll really find out how much character they have. We know we were in games this weekend and the kids played with a lot of heart and courage."
Northern will host the University of Great Falls on Saturday.
"The kid are excited to get back on the court," Huse said. "We have another home game and with the great crowds we had this weekend, they are excited to have Great Falls at home."