By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
To put it simply, Saturday night will be different for the Montana State University-Northern basketball teams. Everything will move up a level. The defense will be just a little tighter, each rebound will be fought for a little harder, getting each shot off will be a little tougher because each game means a little more.
Everything that has occurred up to this is only preparation, because Saturday night every game counts from here on out as the Lights and Skylights open the Frontier Conference season against the University of Great Falls at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
"You can see it in their eyes," said Skylights head coach Mike Erickson. "There really is a different mindset when it comes to conference games."
The Skylights come into conference play with an 11-6 nonconference record. On paper it looks solid, but Northern has been terribly inconsistent, especially offensively thus far. The Skylights are averaging 70 points per game, but have only scored more than 70 points in two of their last seven games and are shooting just 41 percent from the field.
Early on, Erickson excused much of the inconsistency because of the large number of young players seeing significant playing time. However, 17 games into the season, it's time for the excuses to stop.
"We can't afford to have off nights anymore," Erickson said. "I told them that I'm not bailing them out with the excuse that we're a young team. We need to start growing up and maturing as a team. We can't use that excuse because with our talent and team chemistry, we should compete with whoever is on the floor."
The opponent on the floor Saturday has just two wins on the season, but that doesn't make them any less dangerous.
The Argos, under new head coach Roger Hatler, have struggled at times this season with an undersized lineup. But Erickson isn't about to let his team overlook them.
"Two years ago it was a similar situation and they came in here and beat us," Erickson said. "All of the nonconference records are out the window. Everyone is 0-0 in conference and we have to treat them all the same."
Despite its 2-16 record, UGF has plenty of weapons and is more than capable of putting points on the board. The trio of Nichole Neill, Sasha Ritter and Kim Freeman account for almost three-quarters of the 60 points a game the Argos average.
Neill, who started the majority of games for Northern last season, is a dangerous three-point shooter, who can score points in bunches and is averaging 15 point per game.
"We know what Nichole can do," Erickson said. "She's a great three-point shooter and she has plenty of experience playing in our gym."
Ritter, a former star at Big Sandy, transferred to UGF from Carroll College and is averaging 11 points a game while shooting 48 percent from the field.
"Sasha is a great all-around player who doesn't make many mistakes," Erickson said.
Freeman, who started every game last year for UGF as a sophomore, is having a solid junior season. She is second in the conference in scoring, averaging 18.7 points per game while pulling down six rebounds a game.
"Freeman has really benefited from having Nichole and Sasha," Erickson said. "We're going to have to know where there are on the floor at all times. They're not just shooters, they're scorers and that makes them tough to defend because they know how to get themselves in positions and situations to put the ball in the basket."
While the Argos are set in the backcourt, it is up front where they are a little thin. The Argos' tallest player is former Havre High standout Jayla McPherson at 6-0. But McPherson doesn't have much help. Senior Libbie Oram (5-9), junior Deidre Ranf (5-11)and freshman Monica Reynolds (5-10) will see time inside for UGF.
"McPherson for her size is very effective inside," Erickson said. "She plays hard and is very competitive and she always plays well against us. On paper, it looks like our size should be an advantage."
On paper, on the floor, even in a 6-inch hole, Northern is a bigger team, with 6-3 center Megan Valgardson, 6-0 forward Brettney Vermandel, 5-10 forward Michele VanDyke and 5-11 forward Khadiga Mohamed. However, the Skylights have had the size advantage in most of their game this season and it doesn't always translate into wins.
"We still have to be able to execute and get the ball inside," Erickson said. "We're going to look inside first. Hopefully, it will also open things up on the outside."
Last year's leading score, Anna Bateman, has struggled at times since returning from a foot injury a month ago. Bateman is averaging just 8.6 points per game, but she hasn't gotten many good, open looks in recent games.
"If we make a conscious effort to get the ball inside first, it should get things to open up for Anna and Jessi (Reome) on the outside," Erickson said.
With their size advantage the Skylights should dominated the rebounding category, Erickson hopes that his defense and rebounding will carry them in conference until the offense starts clicking.
"There is no reason we shouldn't outrebound them," Erickson said. "We're not a full-court defensive team like last year. But I like how we're defending in the half court, and if we can hold teams to around 60-65 points, we will be in games even if our offense isn't always there."
While the inconsistency on offense has bothered Erickson, the inconsistency in mental preparation from his players has bothered him more. But the conference opener on your home floor should offer plenty of incentive to be prepared.
"We should be a little more mentally prepared," Erickson said. "That's who is going to be on the floor is the ones who are mentally ready to play. I know we're looking forward to playing at home in front of a big crowd in a conference game."
Men's basketball coach Shawn Huse will be the first to testify the need for mental preparation. Two games ago his team suffered its first loss in five games because it wasn't ready to play. The Lights redeemed themselves on Tuesday with a dominant 101-62 win over Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. With the opening of the conference schedule, Huse has little doubt that his team will come out ready to play.
"These are conference games and you are playing for keeps," Huse said. "There shouldn't be any need for extra motivation. We need to come out very focused and ready to play hard."
"We're more excited than you can imagine," said point guard Lamar Morinia. "This is what it's all about. It's conference games. Everything moves up a level. I'm not worried about us getting up for conference games."
Huse is worried about starting off against a very scrappy Argo team. UGF, under first-year head coach Antonio Veloso, comes into conference with a 6-8 record, which is already an improvement from last year's 4-17 squad.
Only a handful of players return for the Argos, who sport a different lineup and a vastly different style than last year.
"Great Falls is going to try and come in here and make it an ugly game," Morinia said.
Ugly, that is in terms of defense and limited offensive possessions. With only a three players, 6-5 or taller, UGF relies on its speed and athleticism to slow teams down offensively while being a very deliberate offensive team.
"They want to keep the scores of the games down," Huse said. "(Veloso) made that statement in the paper earlier in the year and they've stayed true to it. They want to keep the scores down to give themselves a chance late in the ball game. In basketball, all you need is a chance at the end."
The Argos are able to keep things close with unlimited athleticism on the perimeter. Guards James Edwards, Carlos Escoto and Anthony Owens have the speed and quickness to cause problems for Northern's perimeter players. Inside, 6-5 forward Rico Suazo plays much taller than his height and is a fierce rebounder, while 6-9 center Josh Wells is UGF's only true post player.
"They are very athletic and they play with a lot of energy," Huse said. "They don't have much size in the post, but what they lack in size they make up for in hustle."
Edwards, who came to UGF from Malmstrom Air Force Base, leads the Argos in scoring at 13 points per game. Despite their size, transfers Suazo and Owens rank first and second in the conference in rebounding at close to eight rebounds per game.
With the new coach and new faces, UGF has already exceeded most people's preseason expectations. However, a team picked to finish last in the conference can often be the most dangerous because it has everything to gain and nothing to lose.
"They really do have that nothing to lose mentality," Huse said. "They are going to come in here very fired up and play very hard. We have to be at our best."
Northern's best was evidenced in Tuesday's blowout win. It's pretty simple for Northern, when they come out focused and ready to play, they are a tough team to beat. With six players returning from last year's squad, Huse believes his team is even more prepared for the rigors and increased intensity of conference play.
"Last year at this time, we'd be very uncomfortable playing in a slow-paced game," Huse said. "But a lot of these guys have played in right around 50 college games for us. They've seen a little bit of everything. We're a little more experienced in all situations, including what it takes in Frontier Conference play. That experience should make us a little more confident."
Captains Larry and Lamar Morinia lead Northern, combining to account for 36 points, eight rebounds and seven assists a game. The Morinias played in every conference game last year along with starting forwards Landen Grant and Reid Stovall. Reserves Travis Moran and Zach McLean also saw extensive action in conference play.
However, the big difference from last year is the added inside presence. Center Trenton Harbaugh is averaging nine points and seven rebounds per game while playing solid post defense. Transfer Dustin Sawejka is averaging 14.9 points per game and has been an offensive boost off the bench.
"We're not going to change anything," Huse said. "I know I say it all the time, but we just want to play hard, play unselfishly, do the little things and leave it on the floor. We want to do the things we do well. We weren't ranked real high in the conference either, so we have to play like we have nothing to lose and prove some people wrong."
With Havre High basketball done for the weekend, the Lights and Skylights will be the marquee event on Saturday night. A fact not lost on both coaches.
"We're very excited about starting the conference season at home," Huse said. "There should be a good crowd and it gets the players excited playing at home in front of a big crowd."
Said Erickson: "The ladies are looking forward to playing at home. This is one thing we tell them about when we're recruiting them is playing at home in front of a big crowd. I don't think there will be any problem putting on the home uniform and being ready to play."