By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Carroll College P.E. Center might not be the toughest place to play in the Frontier Conference, but it is far from the easiest. To put it simply, Carroll basketball teams just don't lose there.
The Montana State University-Northern women's and men's basketball teams will try to hand the Saints rare Frontier Conference home losses tonight in Thursday game's that were supposed to be televised statewide on Omega Television Productions.
However, Omega said today that it will not broadcast the games. So fans who want to follow the games will have to listen to them on 92.5 KPQX-FM.
Television or not, the game is still very important to both the Skylights and Lights.
The Skylights, who are fourth in the Frontier with a 6-4 conference record, will open the night, facing a conference-leading Saint squad in the midst of a three-game winning streak.
The Saints could make it a three-game win streak over the Skylights with a win tonight. Carroll, 9-1 in conference and 24-4 overall, has already defeated Northern twice this season, the most recent being a 70-59 win in Havre on Jan. 24.
In that game, Northern came out flat and disinterested as Carroll rolled to a 25-10 lead midway through the first half. The Skylights rallied to cut the Saint lead to single digits. But behind the shooting of Tara Zoanni and Laci High, Carroll put Northern away midway through the second half.
Skylights head coach Mike Erickson knows his team can't make the same mistake of not being ready to play tonight.
"I definitely think we'll be much more prepared this time around," Erickson said. "We know we can't put ourselves in a hole like that against Carroll. They're just too good offensively to try and come back on."
Indeed, the Saints are frighteningly efficient on offense, averaging 76.4 points per game while shooting 42 percent from the field and 37 percent from three-point range. They have a multitude of weapons led by Zoanni, who is second in the conference in scoring at 18.6 points per game.
"Zoanni is a senior and their leader," Erickson said. "She's not afraid to take big shots and they look for her when they need a basket."
Carroll also gets a healthy contribution from sophomore Emili Woody, who is averaging 14.7 points per game and a conference-best 9.4 rebounds per game.
"Woody just kills teams with her offensive rebounding," Erickson said. "She has a real knack for getting offensive boards. We're going to put Brettney (Vermandel) on her to try and keep her from getting (Carroll) second-chance opportunities."
As always for Northern, it boils down to defense and rebounding. If the Skylights can do both well, they will have success. However, Carroll's strengths play directly against those factors.
"It comes down to us defending and slowing down a couple people," Erickson said. "Obviously, everyone is a threat for them, but it seems like the same two or three people beat you. If we can take them away, it's going to force other players to do things they aren't used to doing."
Carroll outrebounds its opponents by an average of five rebounds per game and leads the Frontier, averaging 14.5 offensive rebounds per game.
"We cannot give up offensive rebounds," Erickson said. "They're tough enough to stop defensively, we certainly don't need to give them second chances on possessions."
Still, with all the offensive firepower and talent, Erickson doesn't think his players are intimidated by Carroll or its league-leading status.
"They're definitely beatable," Erickson said. "We didn't play well at all offensively in our last game and we were still there. I definitely think we have a chance if we play like we're capable of."
While the Carroll women continue to roll, the Carroll men have bogged down since falling to Northern 98-95 in double overtime on Jan. 24. The Saints have lost three of their last five games since then and have uncharacteristically struggled on offense.
Carroll, 4-6 in conference and 17-8 overall, did not break the 60-point barrier in its last two games - a pair of losses to Westminster College and Lewis-Clark State. But despite the Saints' current woes, Lights head coach Shawn Huse isn't about to let his team overlook Carroll.
"Our kids realize that Carroll is very tough to beat at home," Huse said. "I think you have to throw out Carroll's conference record. They have Chris Bond back now and they will be very hungry to get a win after losing the way they did to us earlier in the season."
When Northern and Carroll met earlier this season, Bond was in street clothes with a bad ankle. Sophomore Jeff Hays filled Bond's role quite ably, scoring 33 points and pulling down nine rebounds for Carroll. But Bond has played in Carroll's last four games, and along with Hays, will be a factor.
"We know that Bond and Hays are as good of post players as there are in this league," Huse said. "You have to pay a little extra attention to Bond because he can be a difference maker. He certainly has the talent to do so. And you can't just focus on him and Hays because Carroll has plenty of other weapons."
Bond is averaging 14.4 points per game, while Hays is scoring 13.2 points and pulling down a team-high 6.3 rebounds per game. Their frontcourt mate Andy Brown also averages in double figures at 12.0 points per game while shooting 57 percent from the field. Carroll point guard Greg Johnson leads the Frontier in assists, while Chester native Jeff Graham and senior Newell Roche provide outside shooting.
Besides defending all of Carroll's offensive weapons, Northern will also have to win the battle on the boards. Carroll is a very good rebounding team, but in the earlier win the Lights edged the Saints in rebounding 35-34.
"We were one rebound from being even and three points from being even," Huse said. "Every game from here on out, we have to rebound if we even hope to have a chance."
Northern senior Trenton Harbaugh leads the Frontier in rebounding at 7.3 per game while Dustin Sawejka and Reid Stovall also provide help on the boards.
Another aspect the Lights must improve is free-throw shooting. Northern's free-throw shooting has been deplorable at best and has made games much closer than they should be.
"Basically, our free-throw shooting can only improve because it can't get any worse," Huse said. "Hopefully we'll be able to knock our free throws down, get some rebounds and get a big road win."
Thanks to three-straight wins, Northern has moved into fourth place and is clinging to one of the very valuable home-playoff spots. But Huse knows that their position in the standings can change quicker than the Montana weather.
"We have taken a big step in our last three games, but we need to take an even bigger step in these next four games," he said.
Indeed, the Lights will face the top three teams in the Frontier in their final three games, which makes getting a win tonight even more critical. It's a task, Huse feels his team is up for.
"Our intensity level has been very high and they have been very focused," he said. "I think we're really hungry and playing toward a common goal."
The Skylights will tip off at 6 p.m. and the Lights at 8 p.m.