By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Beating a team twice in one season is difficult. Beating a team twice in the span of two weeks on its home floor is tougher than shooting baskets with a blindfold on.
Still, the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team did exactly that with an 87-82 win over Rocky Mountain College on Saturday night in Billings. And the Lights weren't shooting with blindfolds on either.
Northern knocked off the two-time defending tournament champ Bears in decisive fashion - regardless of what the final score indicated - with an efficient offense, a stingy defense and a whole bunch of heart.
"I think it's the first game I watched us play this season that I had little to no doubt that we were going to win," said Northern head coach Shawn Huse. "Even when we went into halftime down, I still thought we were winning the battle."
Thanks to the shooting of Greg Wood, Rocky grabbed a 37-35 halftime lead, as Wood scored 15 of his game-high 29 points in the first half.
"Greg Wood was awesome in the first half," Huse said. "He was hitting everything."
The feeling that Huse had at halftime started to show in the second half as Northern started to pull away.
The Lights erased the half-time deficit immediately and slowly built its lead to eight, then 10 and eventually to 18 points at 75-57 with just over four minutes to play, as Landen Grant buried a pair of clutch three-pointers.
"Landen hit some big shots for us," Huse said. "In the second half, I thought we did a good job of getting a little bit of a lead and really getting after them defensively once we got the lead."
Indeed, it almost looked as if the 200 or so Northern fans might get to see a blowout. But that just wouldn't be the Lights now, would it?
With plenty of Frontier Conference tournament experience, the Bears started whittling away at the lead from three-point range as Wood and former KG star Jake Stuart banged home treys.
"We knew Rocky was going to make one last surge," Huse said. "They started making three-pointers and doing the things that make coaches' hearts stop."
The Lights also added to Huse's heart palpitations by starting to miss free throws. Northern will never be confused for a great free-throw shooting team, but with Rocky forced to foul, the Lights, though not exactly perfect from the free-throw line, were good enough to ice the game.
"They got a lot of their points in the second half in those last few minutes," Huse said. "We weren't perfect from the free-throw line, but we were at least making one out of two."
Northern played a solid if not spectacular game, shooting 52 percent from the field and turning the ball over just 16 times. The Lights also won the all-important battle of the boards, outrebounding Rocky 37-28.
"I thought we executed our game plans on both ends of the floor," Huse said. "They just played a great game."
Offensively, Northern got another solid effort from the Morinia brothers, as they combined for over half of Northern's points. Larry Morinia led the Lights with 24 points, including 8-10 from the free-throw line. Lamar Morinia added 19 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Northern also got a solid effort from Reid Stovall with 15 points, four assists and four steals.
"Reid had another solid game," Huse said. "He did all the little things that it takes to win in this conference. He is just one of those guys that plays with so much heart."
Dustin Sawejka also added 11 points, but it was his defense that made Huse happiest.
"Dustin really stepped it up and played great defense in the post," Huse said. "He played just a smart game. He really is starting to understand and get more experience in the conference. I think it was a little bit of an eye-opener for him."
Defensively, Northern held Rocky center Luke Kunkel to just 14 points and six rebounds after he had torched them for an average of 29 points in the two previous meetings. Stuart scored just 11 points on 3-11 shooting.
"We did a good job on Jake," Huse said. "It's tough to see his career come to an end. I've really enjoyed watching him compete and become a great player in the Frontier Conference."
With the win, Northern not only advances to Friday's semifinal against Westminster College in Butte, but the Lights also accomplished something very few teams do - beat Rocky on its home court twice.
The Bears had won 19 straight home games until Northern got them on Feb. 21. Rocky's string of six-straight Frontier Conference tournament wins also came to a crashing halt.
"It's a really big accomplish for us," Huse said. "I don't know what it is, but our kids feel very comfortable playing in that gym. I think a lot had to do with the great support we've had in the last two games we played there. We may not have had the same number of fans, but we had the same decibel level in support. And that always makes it feel a little more like home."
Northern will play Westminster at 6 p.m. Friday at the Butte Civic Center.
MSU-NORTHERN 87, ROCKY MOUNTAIN 82
Stovall 6-8 3-5 15, Grant 2-9 0-0 6, Harbaugh 2-2 2-2 6, Larry Morinia 7-13 8-10 24, Lamar Morinia 7-13 2-6 19, McLean 0-0 0-2 0, Bullchild 0-0 4-6 4, Moran 1-1 0-0 2, Sawejka 4-10 3-4 11. Totals 29-56 22-35 87.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN (17-14)
Waldo 2-4 0-0 4, Kunkel 7-13 0-1 14, Stack 5-9 1-1 11, Wood 12-21 1-2 29, Stuart 3-11 3-3 11, Miller 3-4 1-2 7, Wilson 0-0 0-0 0, Tollefson 0-0 0-0 0, Coleman 2-4 2-2 6, Goetterup 0-0 0-0 0, Schweigert 0-0 0-0 0, Cook 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 34-67 8-11 82.
Halftime-Rocky 37, Northern 35. 3-point goals-Northern 7-20 (Lamar Morinia 3-8, Larry Morinia 2-4, Grant 2-7, Stovall 0-1), Rocky 6-19 (Wood 4-9, Stuart 2-7, Coleman 0-1, Stack 0-2). Fouled out-Moran, Coleman. Rebounds-Northern 37 (Lamar Morinia 11), Rocky 28 (Kunkel, Stuart, Colmean 6). Assists-Northern 14 (Stovall 4), Rocky 14 (Stuart 4). Total fouls-Northern 16, Rocky 25. A-NA.