By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
It's pretty simple equation: Win and you're in. Lose and it's start preparing for next season.
For the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team, winning is the only way to keep its season going.
With the odds of receiving an at-large bid to the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City, Mo., next weekend slim at best, Northern must win this weekend's Frontier Conference tournament in Butte to qualify.
But before the Lights can even think about a title, they must first do something they haven't done this season - defeat Westminster College.
The Lights and Griffins hook up tonight at 6 p.m. in the opening semifinal game at the Butte Civic Center with Lewis-Clark State and UM-Western meeting in the nightcap at 8 p.m.
Although Northern has never beaten Westminster this season, it doesn't mean the Lights didn't have their opportunities. In its last home game of the regular season, Northern lost to Westminster 69-68 in a nail biter that also cost the Lights a chance to host a home playoff game.
After a some confusion over the score and game clock following a Dustin Sawejka basket giving Northern a 68-67 lead, Reid Stovall fouled Westminster's Nick Booth on the inbounds pass with 4.5 remaining. Booth sank the subsequent two free throws to give the Griffins the win.
If there is any one player on the Lights squad that wants to win tonight's game a little more than the rest, it would be Stovall.
"This is a team I want beat and a game I want to win," Stovall said. "That wasn't how I wanted it to end in our last game with them"
Westminster comes into the game as the tournament's top seed and fresh off a 76-49 win over the University of Great Falls. But what makes the Griffins so successful isn't overwhelming talent -though they're still very talented - rather it's the offensive system they run.
Call it patient, calculating or deliberate. Opposing coaches and players have a different word - frustrating.
"It gets very frustrating because you play good defense for 30 seconds and then make one split-second mistake and they get you," Stovall said. "That gets very frustrating. You have to play good for the entire 35 seconds on the shot clock, not just 30."
It's a very similar system to the one Princeton University has used with so much success in the NCAA tournament.
It's an offense that spread defenses out and exploits them with backdoor cuts and crisp picks. Opposing teams not prepared can look very foolish by all the easy baskets.
However, Northern head coach Shawn Huse is hoping that the two previous games will make his team more familiar.
"We have a little better feel of what they like to do and what plays they like to run," Huse said. "It's easier for us to make adjustments against it, but the kids still have to go out there and do it."
One adjustment that Huse will try to make is to slow down the Frontier Conference's second-leading scorer in guard Adam Hiatt. The senior shooting guard is averaging 21.9 points and 3.2 assists per game.
Hiatt can take over games by hurting teams from a variety of drives, long-range shots and free throws where he shoots over 84 percent But don't think for a second that Hiatt is just a product of Westminster's efficient offensive system.
"Hiatt's a good enough player that it wouldn't matter what offense they were running, he's going to find a way to score," Huse said.
Still, Hiatt is extremely effective in the current system and his supporting case of Booth, Nate Sanchez and Shane Humphreys all understand their roles and perform them exceptionally well.
"People don't give their players' ability much credit," Huse said. "If their style was different and they took more shots, they'd have four or five players averaging in double figures."
Instead, they take very few shots in a game, which means that their opponents get much fewer attempts as well. The Griffins make opposing teams value each offensive possession in the same manner they do.
"They use so much time that it forces you to do the same thing when you have the ball," Stovall said. "You have to make shots count because it's like your playing with a lot less time and make each time you have the ball count."
Still with all the talk about Westminster's offense, Huse believes a few other aspects that make the Griffins good get overlooked.
"Everybody talks about how great Westminster's offense is and how efficient it is, but I think are just as good of a team on the defensive end," Huse said. "They're holding teams to 62 points per game and lot of that has to do with their style, but they are still very good defensively."
Indeed, Westminster has held Northern - the highest scoring team in the Frontier at 92.1 points per game - to under 70 points in both the previous meeting.
However, Northern didn't play exceptionally well in either defeat.
The Lights were outrebounded in both games and didn't shoot free throws particularly well in the losses. It's those two aspects that have caused Huse many sleepless nights this season. And it's what Northern's success comes down to this weekend.
"It comes down rebounding and making our free throws," Huse said. "If we win those two aspects of the game, we have a real good chance at coming out on top."
Of course, Huse has no way of predicting how his team will do in either category. But he does know that his players will be much more prepared mentally this year at the tournament, with Stovall, Larry and Lamar Morinia, Landen Grant, Zach McLean and Travis Moran all playing, than in last year's first-round loss to Rocky Mountain College in the tournament.
"We're all going to be a little more prepared this year," Huse said "Last year, we went down there cold turkey into that tournament without anyone ever playing significant minutes in tournament play. This year we have a better idea of what to expect."
And what Huse expects is another close game in a season filled with close games.
"We know we aren't going to down there and blow them out," Huse said. "We just want to be in the game at the end and give ourselves the chance to win."
A win is a must for Northern's postseason dreams to continues. So there won't be any looking past Westminster or making championship reservations just yet
"Our focus is Westminster," Stovall said. "We've watched them on film. We've went over their players. We haven't even considered who we might play on Saturday if we win."
Said Huse: "As much hard work as we have put in to get to this point, it would be all for nothing if we didn't focus in on Westminster and do all we can to beat them."
Tonight's game can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM or via web cast on the Northern webpage at www.msun.edu.