By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Nothing against the town of Dillon, but Mike Erickson's recent memories of the place haven't been exactly fond. Can you blame him? The last time the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball coach was there, his team was lambasted by 41 points by the UM-Western Bulldogs.
It's a memory that Erickson and his returning players wouldn't like to relive when they travel to Dillon for tonight's Frontier Conference basketball game.
"Not at all," Erickson said. "But it's still there in the back of your mind. It isn't something that is easy to forget."
Not even a 78-71 loss to Western at the Frontier Conference Tip-off tourney earlier in the season can erase the feeling of walking off the UM-Western gym floor after a shelling like last year. Perhaps the best way to rid themselves of the memory is to pick up a win tonight.
"We have to have the attitude of going in with a chip on our shoulders," Erickson said. "We're going into their house and even though they lost some players from last year, there is still that sense of a winning tradition."
No team in the conference was hit harder by graduation than Western. The Bulldogs lost all-everything forward Bobbi Suhr, who finished her career as Western's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. Also gone is all-conference forward Karly Tait and shooting guard Vanika Dickerson to graduation, while point guard Shyla Epler, who led the nation in assists, decided not to return. Also out for the season is 6-4 center Jill Feller, who will have back surgery.
With roughly 80 percent of its offense missing from last year, Western relies heavily on several younger players for production.
The Bulldogs don't have one dominant scorer. Rather they have a foursome averaging in double figures led by freshman center Katherine Sunwall at 11.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
Guards Hillary Taylor and Megan Schmitz are averaging 10.9 and 10.8 points per game, respectively, while former Havre High standout Alyssa Matter averages 10.4 points per game.
In the past, the entire offense went through Suhr, this year's foursome makes the offense much more diverse.
"Every one of their players can hurt you," Erickson said. "Taylor can get hot from the three-point line. We have to know where she's at so we don't let her get going."
In the earlier game this season, the foursome combined for 48 points and 22 rebounds. But it wasn't just those four that hurt Northern. Sophomore Verna Hugs scored 14 points aided by four offensive rebounds, while junior Megan Gradert pulled down 11 rebounds, including six offensive rebounds.
"Hugs killed us with putbacks and scores inside," Erickson said. "We didn't expect that out of her.
Hugs and Gradert were part of a greater problem for the Skylights in the game. Western outrebounded Northern 48-36, including 22 offensive rebounds.
"We gave up 22 offensive rebounds; that's unacceptable," Erickson said. "It's impossible to win against any team giving up that many second chances."
Looking at its roster, Northern shouldn't be outrebounded by many teams. Still, it has happened on more than a few occasions this season. Fortunately, Erickson was able to add a little help during the semester break. Transfer DeLayne Johnston will suit up for the first time as a Skylight this weekend.
Johnston comes to Northern from the University of Montana, where she spent red shirt years for the basketball team and competed for the volleyball team this season.
The 6-foot Johnson was a three-time all-state basketball player and should provide instant offense and rebounding immediately.
"She's picked up everything faster than I planned," Erickson said. "She's really made a smooth transition onto the team. You worry about that with mid-season transfers, but she's Jena Heggem's cousin and played against Michele (VanDyke), Sheena (Darlington) and Kristie (Pullin)."
Even with the addition of Johnson, Erickson admitted winning in Dillon is going to be a challenge.
"They're playing some good basketball right now," Erickson said. "They lost two very close games last weekend. And their players have played quite a few more conference games than ours."
Basically, it boils down to the little things that Erickson seems to preach every week: cutting down on turnovers, rebounding and making free throws. Simple enough in saying, but a little more difficult to accomplish those things on the road.
"I think we're playing with more intensity and aggressiveness," Erickson said. "We're more mentally prepared. Something has switched in their heads and they realize what the conference season is all about."
Part of the mental aspect of the conference season is playing back-to-back road games. Northern is no stranger to that. The quality of competition will be a little tougher on Saturday night, but at least it will be familiar.
The Skylights will head to Butte to face a Montana Tech squad that dealt them a 68-63 loss almost two weeks ago at the Mount Royal Classic in Canada.
In that game, the Skylights, suffering from the effects of three games in three days, stumbled in the beginning, shooting 6-36 from the field in the first half.
Along with the frigid shooting, Northern played the game without both of its point guards. Still, the Skylights had opportunities to win the game.
Erickson believes that because it's a conference game, his players won't let fatigue bother them this time around.
"A lot of it is mental when it comes to overcoming fatigue," Erickson said. "Our preseason schedule prepared us for road games. I would hope they know what's ahead for us."
What's ahead is an Oredigger team that is still very dangerous despite dropping its first two conference games and its 6-13 record.
Tech is led by 6-foot senior all-conference post player Melissa Ritter and 6-foot sophomore post Marcie Alzheimer. Ritter torched Northern last year inside, while Alzheimer averages 11.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. The Diggers got additional help this season from transfer Kaila Fowler, who is averaging 12.5 points per game and give Tech a solid outside threat.
"Fowler is playing some great basketball right now," Erickson said. "With Ritter and Alzheimer inside, they have three players you really have to respect."
The prevailing rule in the Frontier is to try for a split on the road, which would be satisfying for the Skylights. Still, Erickson knows his team can do better than that if they play the defense that has them holding opponents to under 60 points per game.
"Our defense has to remain constant," Erickson said. "I'm really pleased with our intensity on defense. We need it to continue because it can carry us through tough spots, especially on the road."
Along with wanting wins, Erickson wants to show Western and Tech that his team is much different and much improved from earlier in the season.
"We owe it to these teams and to ourselves to give them a better game," Erickson said. "We've told our players to play with their backs against the wall. They know that losing a conference game means something more in the long run. We can't afford not to be at our best."
The Skylights will tip off at 6 p.m. both nights and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.