By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team never ceases to amaze to its head coach Mike Erickson.
Just when Erickson and his assistant Warren Quick think they have just watched the ugliest basketball game ever, the Skylights go out and top it.
But even Erickson admits, that it can't get any uglier than last weekend's 52-50 loss to UM-Western. Instead, he is hoping after that low point, that things will only get better especially this weekend as the Skylights host Rocky Mountain College on Friday and Carroll College on Saturday.
"It seems like I keep saying the same thing over and over every week," Erickson said. "It all comes down to which team is going to show up to play."
Is it going to be the offensively challenged squad that managed just 16 first-half points on a six for 36 shooting performance against Western? Or is it going to be the resilient team that shook off a shaky early start against Montana Tech, and played inspired basketball in the second half to pick up its second conference win of the season?
Erickson only wishes he had an answer. It's anyone guess. But he has seen hints that the latter team will show up this weekend. The Skylights have a had solid week of practice including a three-day stretch where Erickson said his team matured more than it has the whole season. Still, every team is undefeated in practice, including the Skylights.
"We've been practicing hard all week and all year," Erickson said. "But we're not carrying it over to game situations. If we play like we practice, we can win a lot of games in this conference."
It basically comes down to the Skylights learning how to win. Winning is easy enough when you shoot 60 percent from the field and you're hitting three-pointers. But it isn't quite as easy when shots aren't falling. That's where defense comes in. It's the one consistent thing the Skylights have been able to count on this season.
Northern is holding teams to a conference-best 58.7 points per game and 38 percent shooting from the field. Unlike last year, the Skylights aren't doing it with a harassing full-court defense. Instead, Northern is using a stingy, physical half-court look with a little bit of zone mixed in with some half-court trapping.
In last year's matchup in Havre, Rocky capitalized on the full-court pressure to get some open looks and capitalized by going on a 34-10 run to open the game.
Obviously, Erickson doesn't think that will happen again this year, especially playing a half-court defense instead of a full-court style. Don't let the 0-3 conference record fool you, Rocky has plenty of weapons to do so if the Skylights aren't ready defensively.
"They are basically a five-guard offense," Erickson said. "They may not all be guards, but they shoot like them. Everyone is capable of shooting from the three-point line."
Rocky has sank 109 three-pointers in 19 games this season and is led by the Griffith sisters, Ashley and Amber, who combine for more than 24 points per game.
Amber Griffith is fifth in the conference in scoring at 16.4 points per game and leads the Frontier in field goal percentage, shooting a solid 55 percent from the field. Ashley Griffith is averaging 8.3 points per game, but is capable of scoring in bunches as evidenced by her 28 point, five three-pointer performance against Northern last year.
Rocky gets nine points a game from Mandy Norby and eight points a game from former Big Sandy standout Katherine Bitz. However, it is another local player that plays probably the biggest factor in the Bears' success. Sophomore Jamie Graham has the unenviable task of filling the shoes of point guard and former Skylight Jenny Balgua, who went down with a season-ending injury before it even began.
"Jenny really brought a lot of intensity and team leadership," Erickson said. "The rest of their players really fed off her last year. They've got a young point guard in Graham. But it's basically like coming home for her so you know she'll be ready to play."
Graham is averaging 6.7 points and 3.4 assists per game. However, Erickson also pointed out she is averaging over four turnovers a game and hopes that some defensive pressure could lead to more.
"We're going to mix up our defenses," he said. "We're going to try and make them spend some time figuring out what we're in."
One place where Erickson believes his team can exploit Rocky is on the boards. The Bears aren't extremely big inside and are last in the conference in rebounding at 30.4 rebounds per game. Northern is third in the conference in rebounding at 36.8 per game, a number Erickson thinks should be higher.
"We don't need to win the rebounding, we need to dominate," Erickson said. "We're one of the biggest team in the conference and we're not rebounding that well. It comes down to heart, intensity and hustle to get rebounds."
Looking at the schedule and the standings, it would be easy to think that Northern might be looking past Rocky for Saturday night's matchup with the conference leading Carroll College Saints. But Erickson won't even let his team think about it for a second.
"We have to focus on the first game," Erickson said. "We're not in a position to overlook anyone. Besides we've played Carroll once so we know what they are all about."
What the Saints are all about is offense. Carroll is averaging 78.3 points per game under first-year head coach Shawn Nelson. The Saints are running an offense similar to the recent men's Carroll teams. It features plenty of ball movement, solid screens and a myriad of three-point shots.
"Carroll puts more pressure on defenses than anyone in the league," Erickson said. "They have three and four players than can not only score, but score well and score often. Who do you key on?"
Well, there are two players that he could start with - senior Tara Zoanni and sophomore Emili Woody.
Zoanni is second in the Frontier in scoring at 18.5 points per game. She also is shooting 41 percent from three-point range and has made 50 triples on the season. Woody is eighth in the conference in scoring at 14.7 points per game. She also leads the conference in rebounding at a gaudy 10.3 per game, including 5.2 offensive rebounds per game.
"They run a lot of the same sets that the men ran in the past," Erickson said. "And they run them to perfection. They don't turn the ball over and get a shot on every possession. And if they are hitting their shots look out."
Northern will have to play its best defense of the season. Erickson said mental lapses such as losing your man and not communicating on screens are unacceptable and a quick way to find a loss.
The Skylights already own an 89-77 loss to Carroll on the Saints' home floor during the Frontier Conference Tip-off Tournament. The game was a foul festival with refs blowing the teams for 59 fouls and the two teams combining to shoot 76 free throws in the game.
"I hope there isn't going to be that many fouls called again," Erickson said. "But I know it was a close game for much of the contest and we didn't play our best basketball, or shoot free throws very well in that game."
One thing is for certain this weekend. Erickson is going to play the players who are playing with the most heart, intensity and passion. He made his point last weekend, benching two starters and changing the lineups around.
"I hope it sent a message to both our starters and bench players," Erickson said. "The players that play the hardest are going to be on the floor."
Both games this weekend will tip off at 6 p.m. at the MSU-Northern gym and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.