By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
It's been a long wait. The players and coaches of the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team have been waiting about 25 games to play like they did this weekend.
Northern played stingy defense, executed with precision on offense, won the battle of the boards and basically played near-perfect basketball en route to a pair of convincing Frontier Conference wins.
The Skylights opened the weekend with a 68-57 win over Montana Tech, completing a season sweep over the Diggers.
After a slightly sluggish first half, Northern extended its 30-28 halftime lead with a 14-6 run - keyed by a Megan Valgardson three-point play and a Jessi Reome three-pointer - to take a 44-34 lead.
Tech answered with a three-pointer from Letty Powell and some free throws to cut the lead to 46-40. But Northern responded with a score inside from Khadiga Mohamed, another thee-point play from Valgardson and Reome's third three-pointer of the game to go up 58-40.
Northern iced the game with a three-pointer from Jena Heggem and nearly perfect free-throw shooting from Heggem, Reome and Anna Bateman.
Defensively, Northern was relentless with its full-court and half-court pressure. The Skylights harassed Tech into 28 turnovers and 32 percent shooting from the field, including 25 percent in the second half.
"We came out and played aggressive from the opening tip," said head coach Mike Erickson. "We have been a little passive defensively at times, but not this weekend. We really got after them."
With Tech missing its top shooter, Kaila Fowler, who was out with an injury, Northern shut down Tech's post presence by holding Marcie Alzheimer and Melissa Ritter to a combined 11 points and 13 rebounds. The Skylights also outrebounded Tech 33-28, not a huge amount, but big considering that Tech had outrebounded Northern the last two times the teams met.
"Tech is a big, strong team," Erickson said. "We went in knowing we would give up some three-pointers, but we needed to slow down their inside presence."
While Northern slowed down the Diggers inside, the Skylights were scoring inside as Valgardson came off the bench to score a team-high 16 points on 5-6 shooting from the field. Reome added 12 points, and Bateman chipped in with 11.
Tech was led by Powell's 17 points, while Collette Phillips added 12.
While the win against Tech was satisfying, Saturday night's game against UM-Western was one that the Skylights wanted to win badly. After two very sub-par performances against the Bulldogs, Northern was on a mission to show Western it is a much better team.
The Skylights carried over their defensive intensity, limiting the Bulldogs to just six field goals in the first 10 minutes. With the score tied at 15, Bateman sparked a 10-0 run with a three-pointer and a three-point play, propelling Northern to a 31-25 lead.
Bateman scored 10 of her 20 points in the first half and set the tone for her teammates early in the game.
"Anna had a tremendous first half," Erickson said. "She's our foundation. The rest of the team really feeds off her emotion. They see the heart, the effort, the focus and train of thought that she plays with and follow her lead."
One of those players following her lead was fellow senior Mohamed, who played perhaps her best game of the season. Mohamed was simply dominant in the second half, scoring six consecutive points as Northern extended its lead to 45-36.
Western tried to stop the bleeding as former Havre High standout Alyssa Matter sank her fifth three-pointer to cut the lead to six.
But a pair of free throws from Valgardson, a Bateman layup on a nifty bounce pass from Kristie Pullin, five points from Mohamed and a Heggem layup extended the lead back to 59-45.
Still, the Bulldogs weren't the second-place team in the conference without reason. Western tried to make things interesting as Jamie Buell hit a pair of three-pointers, Meghan Gradert scored twice inside and Matter hit a tough driving basket. However, Northern managed to singe enough free throws down the stretch to put the game away.
Northern coaxed Western into 19 turnovers, leading to 19 points, while committing just 11. For the second straight night, the Skylights also outrebounded their opponent, with a 34-30 advantage.
"We held Western to just two offensive rebounds," Erickson said. "For as much as we've worked on rebounding the past few weeks, it shows it is paying off."
Mohamed led all scorers with 21 points on 10-12 shooting and also grabbing eight rebounds.
"Khadiga just flat took over," Erickson said. "We had her playing on the outside for most of the season because she's so athletic, but we moved her back inside and she's responded. She knows there's only five games left in her career and she's cherishing every single minute."
Besides scoring 20 points, Bateman played a nearly flawless floor game with seven assists, a pair of steals and just one turnover. Valgardson added nine points and nine rebounds off the bench.
Matter led Western with 19 points and seven rebounds. Megan Schmitz added 13 points and Hillary Taylor chipped in with 10.
"We owed it to Western to give them a game," Bateman said. "We know we didn't play well the last two times we played them. We wanted to show them we're a much better team."
The two wins give the Skylights a firm hold on fourth place in the conference and the inside track to a first-round home playoff spot.
"We know we had to make a run," Bateman said. "This was absolutely the best we've played for an entire weekend. We got back-to-back wins against good teams. On paper we're one of the best teams in the conference, but now we are finally starting to play to our potential."
Said Erickson: "That's the first time I felt we played anywhere near our ability for an entire weekend. We came out focused with a game plan and we were able to stick to it. It took longer than the coaches or the players expected, but I think we're starting to get on a roll."
Northern will travel to Helena on Thursday to face Carroll College and then head to Billings for Saturday night's game against Rocky Mountain College.
MONTANA TECH (57)
Marcie Alzheimer 2-7 3-4 7, Collette Phillips 4-6 4-5 12, Kyle Cook 1-5 0-0 2, Letty Powell 5-12 2-2 17, Melissa Ritter 1-5 0-1 4, Shelli Vicars 0-0 2-2 2, Krystin Mengon 1-6 2-5 4, Ali Clarys 0-1 2-2 2, Johanna Fryer 1-7 5-66 7. Totals 16-49 20-27 57.
Jessi Reome 3-6 3-4 12, Kristie Pullin 1-3 0-0 2, Anna Bateman 3-6 4-5 11, Khadiga Mohamed 4-8 0-0 8, Brettney Vermandel 0-4 1-2 1, DeLayne Johnson 1-5 0-0 2, Kristal Lohse 1-2 0-1 2, Chasi Buffington 0-0 0-0 0, Jena Heggem 2-5 2-2 7, Sheena Darlington 0-1 0-0 0, Michele VanDyke 3-4 1-1 7, Megan Valgardson 5-6 6-9 16. Totals 23-50 17-24 68.
Halftime: MSUN 30-28. 3-point goals: Tech 5-12 (Cook 0-1, Powell 5-9, Mengon 0-2), MSUN 5-11 (Reome 3-6, Pullin 0-1, Bateman 1-2, Heggem 1-2). Rebounds: Tech 28 (Alzheimer 10), MSUN 33 (Vermandel 7). Assists: Tech 11 (Cook 3), MSUN 18 (Bateman 3, Lohse 3, Heggem 3). Blocks: Tech 0, MSUN 4 (Valgardson 3). Steals: Tech 7 (Phillips 2, Powell 2, Mengon 2), MSUN 11 (Bateman 5). Turnovers: Tech 28, MSUN 24. Team fouls: Tech 22, MSUN 22. Fouled out: Phillips. Technical fouls: Tech bench.
Hillary Taylor 5-8 0-1 10, Jamie Buell 2-10 0-0 6, Katherine Sunwall 3-6 2-2 8, Alyssa Matter 6-12 2-3 19, Megan Schmitz 5-9 0-0 13, Lindsey Scott 0-2 0-0 0, Billi Suhr 2-3 0-0 6, Meghan Gradert 2-5 0-0 4. Totals 25-55 4-5 66.
Jessi Reome 0-5 0-0 0, Kristie Pullin 2-5 2-6 6, Anna Bateman 6-14 4-6, Khadiga Mohamed 10-12 1-2 21, Brettney Vermandel 4-4 0-0 8, DeLayne Johnson 2-6 0-1 4, Kristal Lohse 0-0 0-0 0, Jena Heggem 2-4 1-2 5, Michele VanDyke 0-0 0-0 0, Megan Valgardson 2-10 5-7 9. Totals 28-60 13-24 73.
Halftime: MSUN 31, UM-W 25. 3-point goals: UM-W 12-28 (Buell 2-7, Matter 5-9, Schmitz 3-7, Scott 0-2, Suhr 2-3), MSUN 4-15 (Reome 0-2, Pullin 0-1, Bateman 4-10, Heggem 0-2). Rebounds: UM-W 30 (Matter 7), MSUN 34 (Mohamed 8). Assists: UM-W 19 (Buell 5), MSUN 24 (Bateman 7). Turnovers: UM-W 19, MSUN 11. Total fouls: UM-W 16, MSUN 10. Fouled out - none.