By Ryan Divish
Be yourself, be a teammate and be prepared.
It sounds like something from the Girl Scouts. But it isn't. It's what Montana State University-Northern women's basketball coach Mike Erickson told his team before it took the floor on Friday night against Carroll College.
One thing is for certain: The Skylights weren't selling cookies as they defeated the Saints, 68-60, to ensure themselves of a home playoff game.
Bruised, battered and with only eight players suited up, the Skylights played like a wounded animal backed into a corner.
"It's another emotional win for us," Erickson said. "The girls stepped up when they needed to. They were out there hustling, diving on the ground and scrapping. We play better when we have that sense of urgency."
It was the first game following the loss of leading scorer Anna Bateman, and the Skylights showed that they are no one-woman show.
"It's a great win for us to know that we can play without Anna," Erickson said. "The girls moved the ball around well and played unselfishly. They relied on each other and played together."
Nichole Neill scored a career-high 27 points on 9-16 shooting, including four three-pointers, to lead the Skylights. Khadiga Mohamed also had a solid night, scoring 15 points and grabbing nine rebounds.
"Nichole had a great game and really stepped up for us," Erickson said.
Perhaps the stat that most impressed Erickson was team rebounding. Northern outrebounded Carroll, 43-32, which is the complete opposite of the first meeting between the two teams.
"Forty-three rebounds against Carroll is great for us," Erickson said. "The girls really got after it. They know its important for us."
The Skylights controlled much of the game and led by as many as 16 points in the second half. However, the Saints went on a 14-2 run to cut the lead to 51-47 with just under seven minutes to play.
Northern answered with a Brettney Vermandel three-point play, a score inside by Neill on a nice pass from Kristie Pullin, and a Mohamed score on another nice pass from Pullin to re-establish its lead.
A pair of former Hi-Line stars led Carroll. Big Sandy's Charla Ray scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while Chester's Carly VanDyke added 12 in the loss.
With the win, Northern is assured of hosting a first-round Frontier Conference playoff game no matter what happens the rest of the season.
"It's good to get a win and get that taken care of," Erickson said. "We didn't want it to come down to the last game of the season to determine if we host a game."
However, any momentum that Northern had from its win Friday night disappeared in the first minutes of Saturday's game against Rocky Mountain College.
The Bears burst to a 12-0 lead to open the game and ended the game almost as quickly as it started, defeating the Skylights, 85-63.
"We were flat," Erickson said. "I don't think we were mentally prepared to play. I have been around the ladies long enough and watching them before the game I could tell we were going to be flat. If you aren't mentally prepared for a game this time of year in the Frontier Conference, you'll get beat."
Northern's shooting was colder than the falling temperatures outside, while Rocky couldn't miss. Neill scored Northern's first points almost 10 minutes into the game. Before the Skylights even reached double figures in points, the Bears scored had 34 points, which included five three-pointers by Ashley Griffith.
"It was a double-edged sword," Erickson said. "We were flat and they couldn't miss. They hit everything."
But it wasn't just Rocky's shooting that did the Skylights in. The Bears put relentless pressure on the Northern guards, disrupting the Skylight offense.
"They totally took us out of our offense," Erickson said. "Their defenders were everywhere."
Griffith finished with 28 points, including 20 in the first half. Her sister, Amber, scored 16 points while Alisha Hayden and Ashley Hammond scored 10 points apiece.
Neill led Northern with 16 points while Mohamed added 11 in the loss.
The performance was a little disappointing and a little damaging as point guard Kristie Pullin suffered a severely sprained wrist and is questionable for next weekend.
"Even though we achieved our goal of getting that home playoff game, we can't let down now," Erickson said. "You're almost cheating yourself if you do that during this time of the year."
Northern will be on the road this weekend, taking on Lewis-Clark State on Thursday and Westminster on Saturday.