By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
The offense was going to come for the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball; with the talent level of the Skylights - it had to. But head coach Mike Erickson didn't exactly know when or where. Thankfully, it came a little quicker than expected.
Northern had its best offensive performance in 10 games with an 86-57 win in the Frontier Conference opener over the University of Great Falls Saturday night at the MSU-Northern gym.
The Skylights' 86-point outburst was the first time the team broke the 80-point barrier since a Nov. 28 win over Concordia College. It was a long time coming for Erickson and his squad.
"It wasn't bad at all," Erickson said. "They don't play the most aggressive defense, but we were hitting our shots. We could have scored points on anyone the way we shot the ball tonight."
Indeed, UGF may have been the perfect remedy for the Skylights' offensive ills. The Argos rank last in the Frontier in scoring defense, giving up an average of 81.6 points per game.
UGF could do little to stop Northern's inside-outside game as the Skylights jumped out to a 30-17 lead thanks to back-to-back three-pointers by senior Anna Bateman.
Bateman, who has been in a little bit of a shooting funk, broke out, sinking five of six shots, including a pair of three-pointers. Bateman and freshman Jessi Reome benefited greatly from the inside presence of center Megan Valgardson.
The 6-3 center was dominant, scoring a game-high 23 points on an array of post moves, putbacks and free throws. Basically, any time Valgardson got the ball inside it was going in the basket.
"Megan gotta be our mainstay inside," Erickson said. "She is one of the biggest post players in the conference. She really gained some confidence offensively. With her presence, it only makes our shooters better."
Indeed, Bateman and Reome both benefited from Valgardson. Bateman finished with 12 points and six assists, while Reome came off the bench to score 13 points, including three three-pointers.
"It takes a lot of pressure off us," Bateman said of the Skylights inside presence. "Not many people are going to be able to guard Megan one-on-one. The double teams should open up some shots for us."
But it wasn't just Valgardson's presence inside, Northern's distinct size advantage led to several easy buckets inside. The Skylights also dominated the boards, outrebounding UGF 36-25, highlighted by 15 offensive rebounds.
Playing at home was also a factor in Northern's increased offensive success. The Skylights haven't played a home game since Dec. 29, and the friendly confines of the MSU-Northern gym and large crowd provided plenty of inspiration.
"It's so good to be home," Bateman said. "When we were playing in Canada, there were games where there wasn't two people in the stands. It's awesome to come home and play in front of a home crowd. It really got us going."
Northern's energy wasn't limited to the offensive end. Despite the offensive explosion, Erickson was probably more pleased with the way his team played defensively. The Skylights harassed UGF into 38 percent shooting performance from the field and 28 turnovers.
"We preached to the ladies that our defense is going to keep us in games," Erickson said. "I thought we did a good job defensively. It was the first time we played man defense in seven games and we really did things right with it."
Coming into the game, Northern knew it had to shut down UGF's scoring duo of Kim Freeman and Nichole Neill, who account for almost half of the Argos' offense.
Freeman, who is second in the Frontier in scoring, and Neill, who started for Northern last season, scored 16 points each, but those points didn't come easy.
"We wanted to make them work for every point they got," Erickson said. "They're great shooters; we made them work for every shot. We knew that Freeman would get some points and we were familiar how Nichole plays, we just wanted to make them work and have their other players beat us."
The remaining Argo players, accounted for just 25 points as Northern was relentless defensively despite leading by 20 or more for most of the game. UGF was without former Big Sandy star and third-leading scorer Sasha Ritter, who has left the team.
"We were up a lot at halftime and I was really pleased that we came out in the second half and didn't let down," Erickson said. "We've done that several times this season, where we let teams back in after halftime. But we didn't against UGF. It was the first time we played a full 40 minutes of basketball."
A three-pointer from Neill got UGF within 21 points at 54-33, but a Khadiga Mohamed putback, a Bateman three-pointer and three-pointer from Reome turned a blowout into a rout.
"We played very smart basketball," Erickson said. "We didn't turn the ball over, we made smart passes and ran a lot of different things offensively. We've definitely taken a step forward offensively."
While the first conference win was nice and the increased offense even more pleasant, Erickson knows it will only get tougher.
"We know it will tougher with each game," Erickson said. "The ladies know that a win is big, but that we need to continue to get better each game."
Said Bateman: "We're starting to come along, but we don't want to peak too soon like last year. We want to peak during the conference tournament in Butte."
Northern will be on the road this weekend for games against UM-Western in Dillon and Montana Tech in Butte.
UNIVERSITY OF GREAT FALLS (57)
Kim Freeman 5-11 5-6 16, Heather Olson 1-5 0-0 3, Nichole Neill 5-14 3-4 16, Paula Meyer 3-6 0-0 9, Jayla McPherson 3-7 0-0 6, Janet Austin 2-5 0-0 4, Libbie Oram 0-2 1-3 1, Jaclyn Bird 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 20-52 9-13.
Megan Valgardson 8-10 7-8 23, Anna Bateman 5-6 0-0 12, Khadigha Mohamed 4-7 0-2 8, Brettney Vermandel 3-5 0-0 6, Michele VanDyke 3-10 2-3 8, Jessi Reome 4-8 2-2 13, Kristie Pullin 0-4 0-2 0, Kristal Lohse 2-7 0-1 4, Chasi Buffington 1-2 0-0 2, Jena Heggem 1-5 0-0 2, Sheena Darlington 3-6 2-2 8. Totals 34-70 13-19.
Halftime - MSUN 48, UGF 27. Three-point goals - UGF 8-20 (Freeman 1-4, Olson 1-4, Neill 3-6, Meyer 3-5), MSUN 5-13 (Bateman 2-3, Reome 3-5). Rebounds - UGF 25 (Freeman 8), MSUN 36 (Valgardson, Vermandel 6 each). Assists - UGF 12 (McPherson 3), MSUN 25 (Bateman 6, Pullin 5). Turnovers - UGF 24, MSUN 10. Total fouls - UGF 17, MSUN 12. Fouled out - Oram