By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Montana State University-Northern women's basketball coach Mike Erickson gets tired of telling his team the same thing over and over. He's sure his players are tired of hearing it too.
But even if Erickson has preached to his team about being mentally prepared for games 3,000,000 times this season, he'll make it 3,000,001 because he saw the importance of it firsthand this week.
The Skylights came out ready and focused to pick up a key 90-65 win over Rocky Mountain College on Friday in front of a packed house at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
Northern used a stifling defense while putting together its best offensive performance of the season to pick up its third conference win of the season.
"It comes back to that same old thing of being mentally prepared," Erickson said. "They were really ready for Rocky. They took some extra time on Friday shooting around to get ready. I could see it in their eyes before the game. We wanted that game."
It was evident from the opening tip as Northern flustered Rocky's offense with multiple defensive looks and even some full-court pressure. The defensive pressure led to several Battlin' Bear turnovers, which led to easy Northern scores.
Beside points in transition, Northern was able to establish its presence in the low post as Megan Valgardson had success early and often. Northern led by as many as 17 in the first half, but Rocky managed to keep things relatively close thanks to multiple three-pointers from former Big Sandy standout Katherine Bitz and Ashley Griffith.
A late three-pointer and a jumper at the buzzer by Anna Bateman gave Northern a 35-28 lead. The 35 points more than doubled the Skylights' 16-point first-half performance against Western a week ago. Yet, Erickson felt his team still didn't completely break out, shooting just 42 percent from the field.
"I didn't think we played exceptionally well in the first half, but we played very hard and hit some three-pointers," Erickson said. "But the second half, we really put some things together and played a full game of basketball."
Indeed, Northern blitzed Rocky in the second half, scoring 55 points and turning the game into a rout. The offensive barrage came directly from the Skylights' stifling defense, which forced Rocky into 28 turnovers in the game. Northern continually switched its defensive looks to keep Rocky's scorers off-balance. The Bears shot an icy 39 percent from the field in the game.
"We did a lot more defensively than I expected," Erickson said. "We ran our full-court pressure, our zones and traps, and we ran them well. That's come from being mentally ready - good things happen."
While the defense led to some easy scores, Northern clicked offensively with crisp passing, solid outside shooting and a strong inside game.
Valgardson finished with a game-high 17 points and seven rebounds and was dominant inside against a smaller Bear front line. But she credited the outside shooting of Bateman, Jessi Reome and the Skylight guards for much of her success inside.
"Their shooting really frees up a lot of space inside," Valgardson said. "I've been getting double-teamed a lot inside. When we're making outside shots, it helps establish the inside game."
Bateman finished with 14 points, including three three-pointers, while dishing out eight assists and picking up seven steals. Chasi Buffington also provided some outside shooting with 10 points, including a pair of triples.
Northern also got a big lift from junior Brettney Vermandel, who scored 12 points on perfect 6-6 shooting. Vermandel also contributed three big steals, which led to fastbreak points to help Northern pull away.
"Brettney played one of the best games of her career," Erickson said. "She was perfect from the field, converted her layups on the steals."
DeLayne Johnston also had a solid game, scoring 11 points and grabbing six rebounds off the bench in just her third game as a Skylight.
"DeLayne is getting better with every game," Erickson said. "She is getting into game shape and used to how physical Frontier Conference basketball is compared to Eastern Class C basketball. She gave us some good minutes."
Northern finished the game shooting 51 percent from the field while hitting six three-pointers as a team. The 90-point outburst was the highest of the season for the Skylights. The defensive performance wasn't bad either, with Northern holding Rocky to 63 points, just four points higher than the 59.7 points- per-game average Northern has been holding opponents to this season.
"I was really pleased with our all-around effort," Erickson said. "We played hard and with intensity. Good things happen when you play hard. Even if we had lost, I would have still been a little pleased because of our effort."
The same couldn't be said on Saturday as Northern suffered a 70-59 loss to conference-leading Carroll College in front of another large crowd at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
The Skylights came out flat against a very good Carroll team, and the Saints made them pay. Senior Tara Zoanni scored 15 of her game-high 22 points in the first half as Carroll rolled to a 25-10 lead midway through the first half. Carroll reeled off 16 unanswered points in the run.
Northern didn't do itself any favors in the first 15 minutes of the game, turning the ball over 17 times and missing short shots and uncontested layups. The Skylights dug themselves more than a hole; it was a canyon.
"I think I heard my voice echoing because the hole we dug ourselves was so deep," Erickson said. "I didn't know what players and lineups to go with to get us going. We tried everyone and everything. Everyone was playing scared."
Erickson finally settled on a lineup that featured Johnston and fellow reserves Kristal Lohse, Kristie Pullin and Jena Heggem with about five minutes to go in the first half. The foursome sparked some life into the Skylights.
Johnston converted a pair of free throws after a tough move inside. Lohse converted a layup on a nice pass from Pullin, and Heggem hit a short jump shot to get Northern going.
"The last five minutes of the half we started playing with some intensity," Erickson said. "Jena and Kristal made a little run to close the gap a little. I was pleased that we were still in the game somewhat after the turnover haven we were playing in."
Erickson rewarded the late first-half surge by playing those players to start the second half. They responded again as they cut Carroll's 46-27 lead to 49-37 as Lohse and Johnston combined for eight points in the run.
However, Carroll's Laci High proved to be a run killer, scoring 11 consecutive points for the Saints, including three three-pointers, to bump the lead back to 58-42 and put the game basically out of reach.
"High hit some big shots for them that absolutely killed us," Erickson said. "They're a good team and they're good because they play hard for the entire 40 minutes.
"I was pleased with our effort in the second half. We made a run and it was our bench that gave us a spark. But you can't dig yourselves a hole like that and expect to crawl out of it, especially against a team like that. The girls have to understand that if you want to be competitive, you have to play hard at all times and on every possession."
High finished with 15 points, while Woody scored 12 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Northern was led by Valgardson's 17 points and seven rebounds. Bateman scored 12 points, while Johnston and Lohse added eight points each.
With the win, Carroll improved to 5-0 in conference and 20-3 on the season. The Saints are in firm control atop the Frontier Conference. The loss dropped Northern to 3-2 in conference and 14-8 overall and into a three-way tie for third place.
The Skylights will be back on the road this weekend as they travel to Lewis-Clark State and Westminster College.
MSU-Northern 90, Rocky Mountain 65
Rocky Mountain College (7-13, 0-4)
Amber Griffith 4-11 4-5 12; Mandy Norby 4-9 3-5 11; Katherine Bitz 3-3 0-0 8; Jamie Graham 1-4 0-0 3; Ashley Griffith 6-14 0-0 16; Amy Schillinger 1-6 0-0 2; Maci Tempel 0-3 0-0 0; Stacey Nevrivy 2-4 0-0 6; Shye Boggs 0-0 2-2 1-2; Jessica Workman 0-1 0-0 0; Jeri Matter 2-3 0-0 1-5; Adja Fame 0-0 0-3 0. Totals: 23-58 9-15 65.
MSU-Northern (14-7, 3-1)
Megan Valgardson 7-12 3-5 17; Jessi Reome 2-4 2-2 7; Anna Bateman 4-11 3-4 14; Brettney Vermandel 6-6 0-0 12; Michele VanDyke 2-4 0-0 4; DeLayne Johnston 3-7 5-6 11; Kristie Pullin 0-1 0-0 0; Kristal Lohse 1-1 1-2 3; Chasi Buffington 4-8 0-0 10; Jena Heggem 1-1 6-6 8; Sheena Darlington 1-1 0-0 2. Totals: 32-63 20-27 90.
Halftime: MSUN 35, RMC 28. Three-point goals: RMC 10-26 (Am. Griffith 0-4, Norby 0-1, Bitz 2-2, Graham 1-2, Ash. Griffith 4-10, Tempel 0-1, Nevrivy 2-4, Matter 1-2), MSUN 6-16 (Valgardson 0-1, Reome 1-3, Bateman 3-8, Pullin 0-1, Buffington 2-3). Rebounds: RMC 28 (Norby 7, Ash. Griffith 6); MSUN 32 (Valgardson 8, Johnston 6) Assists: RMC 18 (Schillinger 6); MSUN 23 (Bateman 8, Reome 6). Turnovers: RMC 28, MSUN 18. Total fouls: RMC 22, MSUN 15. Fouled out - none; Technicals - RMC coach, Amber Griffith.
Carroll College 70, MSU-Northern 59
Carroll College (30-2, 5-0)
Emili Woody 6-11 0-0 12, Rachel Bromiley 0-2 1-2 1, Lindsay Hart 4-5 2-4 10, Tara Zoanni 13-20 1-2 22, Andrea Hall 2-10 0-3 3, Laci High 9-15 0-0 15, Catie Priddy 1-2 0-0 2, Eileen Smith 0-0 1-2 1, Vanessa Tomco 0-2 2-2 2, Jennifer Segadelli 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 35-69 11-17 70.
MSU-Northern (14-8, 3-2)
Megan Valgardson 6-11 5-9 17, Jessi Reome 2-6 2-2 5, Anna Bateman 6-19 2-2 12, Brettney Vermandel 0-3 0-0 0, Michele VanDyke 1-6 0-0 2, DeLayne Johnston 2-3 4-4 8, Kristie Pullin 2-3 0-0 3, Kristal Lohse 4-4 0-0 8, Khadiga Mohamed 1-9 0-0 2, Chasi Buffington 0-5 0-0 0, Jena Heggem 1-3 0-0 2. Totals: 25-72 13-17 59.
Halftime score: CC 39, MSUN 23. Three-point goals: CC 11-18 (Hart 2-2, Zoanni 5-6, Hall 1-4, High 3-5). MSUN: 4-14 (Reome 1-2, Bateman 2-7, Pullin 1-1). Rebounds: CC 35 (Woody 12); MSUN 28 (Valgardson 7). Assists: CC 13 (Hart 4); MSUN 19 (Bateman 4, Pullin 4). Turnovers: Carroll 26, MSUN 23. Team