By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Every team, no matter what the sport, begins its season with a set of goals that it wants to accomplish. But sometimes along the way those goals have to be readjusted.
It is no different for the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team as it starts the second half of the conference season on Saturday night in Great Falls against the University of Great Falls Argos.
With a 3-4 conference record, the Skylights' goal of winning the Frontier Conference regular season title is starting to fade. Instead, head coach Mike Erickson has changed that goal to hosting a first-round Frontier Conference tournament game and go from there.
Erickson believes his team must finish 5-2 in its remaining seven games to have a realistic chance of getting that crucial home-court advantage.
"We always wanted to host a first-round game, but that was part of our main goal of winning the regular season," Erickson said. "But finishing 5-2 is no gimmee. We've really dug ourselves a hole and it's not going to be easy to crawl out of."
Indeed, the Skylights are behind four teams in the conference standings, with Westminster College and Carroll College tied for first with 6-1 conference records. Lewis-Clark State and UM-Western are tied for second at 5-2, with the Skylights alone at 3-4.
Still, it is a big disparity between 5-2 and 3-4 and the Skylights will have to get a much-needed win on Saturday against UGF. It's a game the Skylights should win.
Northern trounced Great Falls 86-57 on Jan. 10 in Havre. The 86-point outburst was one of just two times the Skylights have broken the 80-point barrier during the conference season.
The Skylights are mired in a three-game losing streak, with their last win coming against Rocky Mountain College on Jan. 23 in Havre.
"We were so mentally prepared against Rocky," Erickson said. "It isn't about X's and O's or strategy. It's about taking responsibility for yourself and getting it done. We can talk about it all we want, but at some point we have to step out there and do it."
Erickson saw flashes of that mentality in the Skylights' last game, an 86-68 loss to Lewis-Clark. Northern came out strong and played the Warriors tough for about 35 minutes before finally succumbing down the stretch.
"We talked about the reason we played well against LC," Erickson said. "We changed our mindset and went out there and played with pride and intensity."
That mindset needs to be there even against a UGF team that has yet to win a game in conference (0-7) and only one game on the season (1-17).
"We can't overlook them," Erickson said. "About the time you do that, you get beat."
Past experience tells the Skylights that the Argos are usually right in the game in the first half, but wear down in the second half.
The main reason UGF wears down is that it only plays a handful of players. The Argos go about eight deep, but six of the players play the bulk of the minutes.
"We need to wear them down physically with our size, depth and pressure," Erickson said.
The Argos are far from an offensive juggernaut, averaging just 60.1 points per game. And the bulk of those points come from two players - Kim Freeman and Nichole Neill.
"It's Freeman and Neill and not much else," Erickson said. "We have to defend Nichole's three-point shooting and play straight up on Freeman because she's very athletic."
At one time, Freeman was leading the conference in scoring, but has since dropped to fifth at 16.3 points per game. She is also a solid rebounder, averaging 5.6 boards per game. Although she draws the attention of opposing defenses, she knows how to get open and get her points.
Neill is averaging 14.3 points per game after transferring to UGF from Northern. She is a solid three-point shooter and is an even better free-throw shooter at 77 percent.
Also contributing for the Argos is former Havre High standout Jayla McPherson, who is averaging nine points and seven rebounds a game.
McPherson is UGF's lone inside presence, which should work to Northern's favor.
"Our inside players need to step it up in terms of points and rebounds," Erickson said. "They should be looking at this game as an opportunity to dominate."
Erickson also believes his team's full-court defense will cause the problems it did earlier in the year.
"We really should be able to force some turnovers and get our transition game going," Erickson said. "We need to be aggressive on the defensive end and get after people."
A win could be a great confidence builder for Northern, with four home games following this weekend.
"It's kind of like having five home games with being so close," Erickson said. "We need to get some wins and build some confidence. We have yet to play a complete game, which sounds strange since we're 20-some games into the season. But we're tired of losing. We're really tired of losing games we should've won and it's time we do something about it."
Northern and Great Falls will tip off at 6 p.m. at McLaughlin Center on the University of Great Falls campus on Saturday. The game can be heard locally on 92.5 KPQX-FM.