By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
The players and coaches in the Montana State University-Northern basketball programs had to feel just like they were in a movie. No, it wasn't "Hoosiers," "Blue Chips" or any other basketball movie. It was more like "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."
Unfortunately, Steve Martin and John Candy aren't on this trip for entertainment as the Lights and Skylights left Wednesday to head south to Salt Lake City to play Westminster College tonight and hit the road to face Lewis-Clark State on Saturday.
While every road trip in the conference is difficult, this trip is particularly grueling because of the the form of travel. The Lights and Skylights will literally be taking planes, trains and automobiles on this trip, just not in that particular order. And thus far their trip has gone much like the movie.
Northern left Havre Tuesday afternoon on Amtrak headed west to Spokane to catch a Wednesday evening flight to Salt Lake City. However, the trip took a little longer than planned - by about eight hours. The teams finally rolled into Spokane at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. After a quick practice at Gonzaga, they flew into Salt Lake City.
"It's definitely been an interesting trip so far," said Lights head coach Shawn Huse on Wednesday night.
Obviously, interesting can be defined in several ways. But to say that the travel debacle doesn't take its toll on a team would be naive.
Skylights head coach Mike Erickson referred to the effects of travel before his team left Havre and on its two-day odyssey.
"It's hard to stay focused when you are traveling that long and that far," Erickson said. "Obviously, going through all the changes will be difficult, but every road trip in the Frontier Conference is difficult on some level."
Besides the distractions, this trip will be challenging on the court as well. Both Westminster teams are playing very good basketball as of late, while Lewis-Clark State was picked to finish first in both preseason polls, with both teams featuring rosters loaded with talent.
LIGHTS FACE NO.25, NO. 16 TEAMS
The Northern men have the particularly daunting task of facing two teams ranked in the NAIA Division I top 25 this weekend.
Strangely, neither Westminster nor Lewis-Clark is leading the Frontier Conference. Both teams share the same 3-2 conference records as the Lights. The three teams are locked in a three-way tie for second place behind Rocky Mountain College and UM-Western, which are tied for first place at 4-1.
Westminster moved into the top 25 after scoring a huge 77-55 win over LC in Lewiston, Idaho. At 15-8, the Griffins record is bit deceiving considering the level of their nonconference opponents.
Both of Westminster's losses have come against Rocky Mountain College and UM-Western, the same teams Northern has lost to.
A year ago, the short-handed Lights squad went into Westminster and were promptly spanked 94-71. Northern was without post player Charlie Ereaux and the taller Westminster players out-rebounded the Lights 37-28 and dominated play inside with a physical, aggressive style.
Both Westminster and Northern are very different teams from a year ago, but once again the Lights will go into this trip short-handed.
Reserve forward Berhane Williams, who is coming off of one of his best games of the season, has been suspended indefinitely for violation of team rules and will not be making the trip.
The loss of Williams will be somewhat tempered by the fact that Westminster lost the majority of its inside presence from last year. Gone is forward Nic Sparrow, who torched Northern for 47 points and 14 rebounds in two games last year. Instead, Westminster shifts its offensive to its guard play. The bulk of the scoring load falls directly on the shoulders of senior Adam Hiatt.
So far this season, Hiatt has responded. The 6-2 shooting guard is leading the conference in scoring at 22.4 points per game.
"Westminster isn't quite as physical as last year," Huse said. "They're getting more of their production from their guards, particularly Hiatt. He's always a threat whenever he touches the ball. And if he gets going, it could be a very long night."
Hiatt's backcourt mate Shane Humphreys is second on the team in scoring at 12.4 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.
Humphreys is second in the frontier in three-pointers made with 61. Westminster isn't totally void of an inside presence.
Freshman forward Nate Sanchez is averaging 10.8 points per game while shooting 61 percent from the field. Freshman forward Nick Booth chips in with 9.6 points and 6.7 rebounds a game.
Playing Westminster isn't so much about personnel, but playing against an offensive system. The Griffins play a patient, deliberate style of basketball similar to the NCAA Division I Princeton Tigers. Like Princeton, Westminster likes to spread teams out, use the entire shot clock and exploit opponents' defensive aggressiveness with backdoor cuts and counter direction.
"They still run their Princeton sets and they run them well," Huse said. "It really puts you in some weird situations defensively. They are very effective, very crisp in what they do. It's the type of offense that wears you down mentally because they are so patient."
It's obviously a style that Northern has played before, but would like change if possible. The Lights lead the Frontier in scoring at 94.2 points per game and would like to impose a fast-paced game on the Griffins. It won't be easy. Westminster is second in the Frontier in scoring defense, holding teams to 63.7 points per game.
Besides the contrast of styles, Northern has to contend with the trend of not playing well on the opening night of the weekend schedule. Both of the Lights losses have come on the first night of the two-game weekend schedule, something Huse would like to change.
"It seems to be first night of the weekend thing," Huse said. "It started the first weekend against Great Falls when we didn't exactly burn the house down with our shooting. We need to come right out at the opening tip off. We know we're capable of it. We just haven't put together the type of game we know we can play during conference."
It doesn't get any easier for Northern on Saturday. Even after a day break in between, playing Lewis-Clark State on its home floor ranks right up there shoveling snow in Havre's recent weather.
The Warriors are ranked 16th in the country with a 19-4 overall record and have a roster loaded with talent.
"Without a doubt, they have plenty of talent and weapons at every position," Huse said. "From top-to-bottom, they are probably the most talented team in the conference. They don't have any one person you can focus on."
Indeed, the Warriors have seven players averaging from eight to 12 points per game, led by shooting guard Joey Ray's 12.3 points per game.
LC is a mixture of size and athleticism with 6-10 center Adam Trombley (10.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg), 6-5 slashing forward James Idoko (9.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) player and ultra-quick point guard Ricky Frazier (8.4 ppg, 4.2 apg).
The Warriors also have plenty of toughness in former Northern player Dustin Endsley and outside shooting with Danny Allen and UGF transfer Danny Ball.
Another factor aiding LC is the gym it plays in - if you can call it a gym. The Warrior Gym is a throwback to the old days with low-hanging balconies and tight playing quarters.
"It only seats about 1,000 people and with the balconies the fans are right on top of you," Huse said. "Some people in the conference say the floor isn't regulation length. It's a definite home court advantage and totally different from any other gym in the conference."
With the frenzied crowd and LC's offensive firepower, Huse said his team must slow down or match any big Warrior scoring runs.
"We can't allow them to stretch the lead on us," Huse said. "That's a tough place to come back in."
SKYLIGHTS OUT TO END ROAD WOES
It's pretty simple for the Skylights; when they score points, they win. Northern's offense, particularly on the road, has been far from explosive in recent weeks. The Skylights have failed to score over 80 points in their last 12 road games.
It's not that they aren't used to playing away from the MSU-Northern gym. On the contrary, Northern has played just seven of its 22 games at home. The Skylights are very used to playing on the road, but they must turn it up a level this weekend against two of the better teams in the Frontier Conference.
The Skylights will try and pick up their second-consecutive win in Salt Lake City against Westminster tonight. Northern picked up its first ever win in Westminster, 70-66, last season.
However, the current Griffin squad is much different than last season. Westminster returns all-everything player Rebekah Steenblik, who led the Frontier in scoring and rebounding. The 6-0 senior is second in the conference in scoring at 18.3 points per game and fourth in rebounding at 7.9 boards per game.
Steenblik's slight drop in production is due to having a better supporting cast surrounding her this season. The Griffins are no longer a one-woman show.
"Last year, she was their only player," Erickson said. "This year they have added another post player and a guard to take some of the pressure off her."
Sophomore forward Shalee Fackrell is averaging 12.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. At 6-0, she provides complements Steenblik's size and forces teams to not double team Steenblik. Fellow sophomore Emily Johnson is averaging 10.1 points and 4.1 assist per game as the Griffins' point guard.
"They are coming off a big win over LC," Erickson said. "So they are going to be playing with a lot of confidence. But I'm still glad we're playing them first."
Erickson's reasoning is that his team should be able to use its rejuvenated full-court pressure to force the Griffins into a full-court game which limits Steenblik and Fackrell's effectiveness.
"After the way we played in the second half against Carroll last week, we're want to come out with that same type of pressure," Erickson said. "I feel like we can use that full-court pressure to get some turnovers. If we can turn it into a running game it works to our favor."
On Saturday, the Skylights will face their toughest nemesis of last season in the Lewis-Clark State Warriors. LC gave Northern fits last season with its full-court, in-your-face, defensive pressure. The Warriors defeated Northern by 15 and 17 points last season and return almost every player from that squad led by sophomore forward Cami Kalbfleisch and senior shooting guard Jessica Foote.
Kalbfleisch is third in the Frontier in scoring at 16.7 points per game while pulling down six rebounds per game. Foote is averaging 13.7 points and 4.3 assist per game. The duo are also the top two three-point shooters in the Frontier having knocked down a combined 118 triples on the season.
"They have very good size inside and like to slow it down," Erickson said. "We need to force them into our style of game and wear them down with our depth. Our bench will be our key. We need to keep our intensity level high all weekend and we'll need our bench to do that."
Tonight's games will not be broadcast on the radio, however Saturday's games can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM and start at 6 and 8 p.m.