By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
There will be a little different look to the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team. No, the Skylights don't have new hairdos or new uniforms.
Instead, they will have a new lineup when they take to the floor tonight against Montana Tech to open a home weekend of Frontier Conference games.
Head coach Mike Erickson has decided to go with a smaller, quicker starting lineup, consisting of senior Anna Bateman, sophomore Kristie Pullin, freshman Jessi Reome, junior Brettney Vermandel and senior Khadiga Mohamed.
"We're going with the smaller lineup to force them to play an uptempo style of game," Erickson said. "They like to slow it down and pound it inside."
However, Erickson's lineup may change again because of injury. Bateman has been nursing her surgically repaired foot and has practiced sparingly.
"Anna's in some serious pain," Erickson said. "We've tried to keep her off it as much as possible. We'll use her if she can go, but if not we need someone to step up and fill in for her."
Last week in a win over Great Falls, Bateman played sparingly. Northern overcame her absence with a solid night from its bench, which scored 51 points.
If Northern can go with its intended lineup, it will should be able to play at the tempo Erickson wants to play at.
"We're going to come out and get after them right away," Erickson said. "We are going to make them play our style not let them dictate it."
Northern hopes to counter the potent inside attack by playing full-court pressure defense and forcing the quicker tempo on the Diggers, who would much rather play in half-court slow-down style.
The Diggers are led by 6-0 senior Melissa Ritter and 6-0 sophomore Marcie Alzheimer. The duo combines to average 23 points and 16 rebounds per game. They are complimented by the strong outside shooting of Kaila Fowler, who is leading Tech at 12 points per game.
"We can't let them get going on the inside," Erickson said. "We also have to know where Fowler is at all times. She's going to get a few shots off, but you better not give her too many good looks or it will be a long night."
On Saturday, Northern will host the hottest team in the Frontier Conference in the UM-Western Bulldogs. Western has won its last seven games after losing to Lewis-Clark State on January 10. The Bulldogs sit in second place in the Frontier with a 7-2 record and are coming off an impressive home sweep of LC and Westminster College.
"Right now, I think Western is playing off its experience and tradition," Erickson said. "They're playing the smartest, most intense basketball in the conference."
But the Bulldogs aren't doing it in a flashy way. Rather, they are finding ways to win, playing a solid fundamental style with getting points from different players on different nights. Western doesn't have a player in the top 15 of the conference scoring leaders, but does have all five of its starters averaging in double figures led by sophomore center Katherine Sunwall at just under 12 per game.
Two players that are surging of late is former Havre High standout Alyssa Matter and Jamie Buell. Matter has been scorching the nets from three-point range and Buell has a knack for hitting big shots.
"Matter is shooting the three better than I have ever seen her shoot," Erickson said. "Buell is close to 26-years-old and she plays with a lot of experience."
Northern has dropped two games to Western already this season, but Erickson hopes that third game will be the proverbial charm.
"We know that we lost a pair of games to them that we should have won," he said. "We knocked them off here in Havre last year. I know the girls from last year's team have been talking about doing it again this year."
LIGHTS FOCUSED ON WEEKEND
Lights head coach Shawn Huse will admit that this weekend is important, just not to his team. Huse's plan of keeping his players emotions on even keel by downplaying the importance of the conference standings seems to be working. Very few of them could tell you what place they're in and which teams are ahead of or behind them.
Rather, they are completely focused on completing a sweep of a scrappy Montana Tech squad tonight and avenging an earlier loss to UM-Western on Saturday night.
"Our goal all along is winning all of our games at home," Huse said. "That doesn't change. If you can do that and split on the road, the standings will take care of themselves."
Northern finds itself in a tie for fourth place with Carroll College, bothwith 4-4 records. While it is early to start worrying, a pair of wins would go a long ways in helping Northern grab a precious home game for the first round of the conference tournament.
And these are two games Huse certainly feels his team can win.
Northern defeated Tech 84-76 in Butte earlier this season, and Huse believes if his team can play the type of defense it has displayed in recent weeks it should be fine.
"We need to do a good job of guarding Tech's shooters," he said. "I thought we did a good job in the first game. We can't let them get going."
Guards Shane Sutton and Jeremy Rudolph might not be the biggest or flashiest guards in the Frontier, but if you give them even a hint of an open shot, they will knock it down. The duo has knocked down 122 three-pointers this season and averages close to 23 points per game. But Northern can't overlook Tech's inside game either as Pat Weber, David Scott and Kellen Ori have all played very good basketball of late.
"Their posts are capable of scoring points and are starting to play well," Huse said. "They are starting to get more of a balanced attack."
If there was a team that epitomized the meaning of a balance attack in the Frontier, it would have to be the UM-Western Bulldogs. Western can beat you inside or out, and is capable of having big games from any player or having five or six player score in the teens.
"They are so balanced that you really can't focus on any one player," Huse said. "We need to be very sound and very crisp defensively."
Western defeated Northern 96-84 earlier in the year in a game where Huse said his team played "very poorly." While Northern was flat, Western was crisp shooting over 60 percent from the field in the game.
"Obviously, you hope you don't play as bad or they shoot as well as they did in the last game," Huse said. "But they have the ability to do that to teams every night."
Western is led by 6-7 forward Neil Christiaens and shooting guard Jason Buell. Christiaens is averaging 16.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Buell is third in the Frontier in scoring at 19 points per game and has made a ridiculous 106 three-pointers on the season.
"I think we're very anxious to be back at home," Huse said. "The guys know we have good crowds and it really gets them going."