By Ryan Divish
The University of Great Falls women's basketball team believes it can beat the Montana State University-Northern Skylights. Just ask them.
When the Skylights welcome UGF into the MSU-Northern gymnasium on Saturday, the Argos firmly believe they should win.
It's a sentiment that was whispered around Frontier Conference circles during the preseason and nonconference season. And the Skylights didn't do much to dispel those whispers, winning just three of their first seven games, including a lackluster win over the Argos in the preseason Frontier Conference tournament.
But then the whispers turned to words - printed words - even after Northern handily defeated UGF for the second time this season, 83-69, on Jan. 11 in Great Falls to open the conference regular season.
Argos head coach Scott Patera was quoted after the game as saying, "That's a game I thought we should win."
The win over UGF was the first of a six-game win streak through the Frontier that featured a stunning win over nationally ranked UM-Western.
"At one point in the season, we didn't know if we could beat UGF," said Skylights coach Mike Erickson. "And now we know we can play with any team in the conference."
Erickson isn't big into bulletin board material, but he won't be afraid to mention UGF's beliefs to his team before it takes the floor.
"They made the comment that they thought they should have beat us," Erickson said. "They still believe they can play with us and beat us."
It isn't something that Erickson totally discredits, especially in the unpredictable Frontier Conference.
"If they put a good game together, it could be a battle," Erickson said. "They are coming off a big win and you just can't overlook anybody."
Indeed, the Argos picked up their first conference win last Saturday, defeating Westminster College 82-70 in Great Falls.
UGF, 1-6 in the Frontier and 5-19 overall, will look to junior point guard Paula Meyer, sophomore shooting guard Kim Freeman and senior post player Karen Sauvola for its second conference victory.
Meyer had a solid game against Westminster and will do the majority of ball-handling against Northern's stifling full-court pressure. Freeman is averaging 10 points per game and can score in a variety of ways. Sauvola, who averages 10 points per game, is by far UGF's most talented player but in 24 games this season she has accumulated 104 fouls.
UGF also gets solid contributions from former Havre high standout Jayla McPherson and Chinook grad Erin Acra, both of whom play solid defense, rebound and have the ability to score.
Conversely, the Skylights could be missing one of their key players. Junior guard Anna Bateman, who leads Northern in scoring at 14 points per game, sprained her left wrist in Northern's 69-54 loss to Lewis-Clark State last Saturday.
Bateman is wearing a brace on the wrist this week and has only practiced in a limited capacity. Erickson has had his team practice as if Bateman won't be available to play, but he isn't ruling it out.
"Anna's taken some shots in practice and done some drills, but we don't want her to fall on it or resprain it," Erickson said. "There's a good chance she'll play. She's such a competitor that she'd play if it was broken."
Northern will also shuffle the starting lineup a little, moving junior Khadiga Mohamed into the starting lineup to replace freshman Katie Zilkoski, whose offensive production has slowed a little.
After picking up their first loss in six games, Erickson knows his team will be hungry to come out and erase it from their minds. But, it won't be as easy as the first time against the Argos, who were caught totally off guard by Northern's full-court pressure.
"Teams aren't going to be surprised by what we're doing," Erickson said. "They are going to be prepared for our pressure."
To counter that, Erickson has added some wrinkles to that defensive pressure.
It's supposed to be the toughest thing in basketball for a team to defeat another team three times in a season. But Erickson feels that his team can accomplish the feat.
"We just need to continue to control the tempo of the game and make them play at our speed," Erickson said. "If we can do that, we should be successful."