By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Montana State University-Northern women's coach Mike Erickson heard the talk all week.
With his team already holding a pair of blowout wins over the University of Great Falls, he had people telling him that his team would make it three in Friday night's first-round Frontier Conference tournament game at the MSU-Northern gym.
Luckily, Erickson and his team didn't take much stock in the talk as they gutted out a 78-70 win over the pesky, upset-minded Argo squad. With the win, the Skylights advanced into tonight's semifinal against UM-Western at 8 p.m. at the Butte Civic Center.
"People were talking about winning by 20 or 30, but you're not going to do that at this stage in the season," Erickson said after the game. "You have to be prepared to fight and battle."
The win was far from a blowout and it was a bumpy, emotional ride for Erickson and his players.
"Rollercoaster," Erickson said with a huge sigh. "It was unreal. We came out of the gate and did what we wanted to do and then we just stopped."
Indeed, Northern rolled to a 15-3 lead behind solid defense and transition offense. In the past, the Argos would have packed it in, but this isn't the same UGF team that Northern beat up on earlier in the season.
The Argos scrapped back behind the play of a pair of familiar faces. Former Havre High standout Jayla McPherson and former Skylight Nichole Neill rallied UGF. McPherson scored eight points and Neill sank a tough three-pointer as UGF took the lead 18-15.
"Earlier in the year if we did dig a big hole like that, we might have not recovered," said UGF head coach Roger Hatler. "I'm really proud of our kids for hanging in there and competing and fighting back."
The two teams traded buckets throughout the first half, as McPherson scored at will inside and Neill bombed away from the outside. McPherson finished with 15 first-half points while Neill added 14.
Northern kept things close as Valgardson scored inside and Jessi Reome knocked down a big three-pointer. UGF grabbed a 36-28 lead on a Neill three-pointer with 33 seconds remaining in the half. Brettney Vermandel put a Band-Aid on the bleeding for the Skylights with a jumper at the buzzer to cut the lead to 36-30 at the half. Still, after the promising start, Erickson wasn't exactly pleased with his team's first-half performance.
"I couldn't exactly put my finger on what we were doing wrong," Erickson said. "We started to settle for some quick shots. It's not that they weren't good shots, but we were taking the first good shot we got and not letting the offense work. We had no movement, no cutting, just a lot of long shots with no rebounders underneath."
With UGF intent on taking away the Skylights' transition offense, Erickson wanted to see his team work the ball into the 6-3 Valgardson, who, despite constant double teaming, was still pretty dominant.
"We were trying to force our transition game and it just wasn't there," Erickson said. "When we worked the ball into Megan, she scored. She was four of five in the first half and I don't think that was nearly enough shots. They were double-teaming her, but if we just worked the ball a little more she would have scored."
Said Valgardson: "We knew what we were doing wrong. We were all making mistakes and we knew we had to pick it up."
At halftime, Erickson reminded his team what it needed to do for success. The Skylights responded immediately as Anna Bateman sank back-to-back three-pointers to spark a 19-4 run. But it was on the inside where Northern did most of its damage. Valgardson scored nine points in the run as the Skylights showed much better patience inside.
"We knew they were going to make a run," Hatler said. "We knew they would attack us and I thought we played a little tentative. When they started going into Valgardson, it hurt us."
Northern pushed to its biggest lead of the second half at 55-44 on a sweet cross-court pass from Kristie Pullin to Khadiga Mohamed. But even with the big run and double-digit deficit, the Argos would not roll over.
UGF answered with a 13-2 run punctuated by Neill's fifth three-pointer of the game to cut the lead to 58-57. With Northern clinging to its one-point lead and just over five minutes to play, freshman Jena Heggem sank a clutch three-pointer from the wing to give some breathing room and a four-point lead at 65-61.
"That was a huge shot," Erickson said. "It kind of let us settle down and catch our breath."
For good measure, Bateman found Kristal Lohse inside for an easy score to push the lead to six.
UGF was clearly drained from playing behind the entire second half and the jumpshots that were finding nothing but net earlier started finding the front of the rim. Northern iced the game away at the free-throw line, making eight of 10 foul shots in the final two minutes.
"We had trouble all year long where we hit rough spots and don't seem to be able to respond," Hatler said. "We did respond both times tonight, but the second time, we just dug ourselves too big of a hole."
After shooting a chilly 31 percent from the field in the first half, the Skylights were a little better, shooting 43 percent in the second half, and showing much patience offensively.
"It was one of those games," Erickson said. "I was proud of our goals for withstanding their runs and battling for a win, which is good to see. Overall, I was a happy with a win, but I think we underachieved a little."
Valgardson and Mohamed led Northern with 19 points each. Valgardson added a game-high 15 rebounds to go with four assists and three blocks.
"Megan had an outstanding game," Erickson said. "She was absolutely dominant inside."
Northern also got 10 points, five assists and five rebounds from Bateman and 10 points and five rebounds from Heggem off the bench.
McPherson led UGF with a game-high 23 points and six rebounds. Neil added 20 points, including five three-pointers. Both were markedly better performances compared to their last game in Havre.
"McPherson played great basketball," Erickson said. "She played with a lot of confidence and took it right at our big girls. And Nichole had great game as well."
Northern will now face a UM-Western squad coming off a 75-58 win over Rocky Mountain College in Dillon. The Bulldogs split with Western in the regular season and are led by former Havre High standout Alyssa Matter and guards Megan Schmitz and Hillary Taylor.
The game is scheduled for 8 p.m. and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.
MSU-NORTHERN 78, GREAT FALLS 71
Great Falls (5-28)
Freeman 5-11 1-4 11, Austin 4-10 0-0 8, Neill 6-21 3-5 20, Meyer 2-3 0-0 4, McPherson 10-15 3-3 23, Olson 0-0 0-0 0, Oram 1-2 2-2 4, Bird 0-0 0-0 0, Ranf 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 28-62 10-16 71.
Montana St-Northern (21-12)
Valgardson 8-14 3-4 19, Pullin 1-10 3-4 6, Bateman 3-10 2-2 10, Mohamed 7-12 5-6 19, Vermandel 2-6 3-4 7, Johnson 0-2 0-2 0, Reome 1-4 2-2 5, Lohse 1-1 0-0 2, Buffington 0-0 0-0 0, Heggem 3-6 2-2 10, VanDyke 0-2 0-2 0. Totals 26-67 20-28 78.
Halftime-Great Falls 36, Northern 30. 3-point goals-Great Falls 5-14 (Freeman 0-3, Neill 5-11), Northern 6-19 (Pullin 1-4, Bateman 2-7, Mohamed 0-1, Reome 1-2, Heggem 2-5). Fouled out-Meyer, Pullin. Rebounds-Great Falls 28 (Freeman 9), Northern 42 (Valgardson 15). Assists-Great Falls 21 (Meyer 7), Northern 19 (Bateman 5). Total fouls-Great Falls 21, Northern 15. Technicals-Meyer, Pullin.