By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Call this weekend what you want - a turning point, a confidence builder, a momentum builder. For the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball, it's a statement.
A statement that the Lights have put the earlier inconsistency behind them and are a team no one wants to play.
Northern made it a clean sweep for the weekend, cruising to a pair of decisive conference wins and playing some of its best basketball of the season.
On Friday night, the Lights swept the Montana Tech Orediggers on the season with a 94-58 shellacking. Northern followed up the definitive win with an equally convincing 92-69 win over the UM-Western Bulldogs on Saturday night.
It was the first time in the conference season that Northern has won consecutive games on the weekend. With last week's easy win over the University of Great Falls, the Lights are in the midst of a three-game winning streak and have moved into fourth place in the conference standings.
"Even more than just what it does for us in the conference race, it was nice to see our guys play so focused and with a sense of purpose," said Lights head coach Shawn Huse. "This is the time of the year where it can be difficult to maintain a high level of concentration, but we did the entire weekend."
Indeed, Northern came out focused from the opening tip on Friday night. A Larry Morinia three-pointer at the 5:53 mark in the first half gave Northern a 34-19 lead. Tech battled back to cut the lead to 38-32 at halftime. The Lights' lead could have been much better had they shot better from the free-throw line. Northern was a paltry 8-20 from the charity stripe, a trend that has become a problem in recent games.
Huse said it's a good sign when the team doesn't shoot free throws very well but still has a big lead. "It shows that you aren't relying on them. But we still have to get better. It's not like we're not getting the reps in practice."
Northern's lead was far from stable as Tech trimmed it to 40-36 on a driving basket by Jeremy Rudolph. But Morinia crushed the rally by himself. He punctuated a steal with an emphatic two-handed slam dunk. On the ensuing possession, he blocked a Rudolph shot and dished out a pair of nice passes to Trenton Harbaugh and Reid Stovall for scores.
Morinia simply took over the Northern offense, scoring with a pair of free throws, a three-pointer, a putback on his own miss, a three-point play and a high-arching, fadeaway jumpshot as the shot clock expired. In a six-minute span, Morinia outscored the Diggers 14-7 as Northern rolled to a 61-45 lead.
It was a lead that the Lights would never relinquish.
"Larry is not afraid to put the team on his back and carry it," Huse said. "You have to have somebody willing to take risks and big shots, kind of what he did at different times this weekend."
But it was far from a solo effort and Morinia was the first to point out that his teammates had their fingerprints all over the win.
"It starts out with guys like Travis (Moran) and Reid," Morinia said. "You don't see on a stat sheet the things they bring to a team. They're out there diving on the floor, taking charges and getting rebounds. They energize the rest of us."
Certain stats did show up as Northern destroyed Tech on the boards, outrebounding them 49-20, including a whopping 20 offensive rebounds. The Lights also forced Tech into 18 turnovers and an icy 35 percent shooting performance.
"We gauge how hard we play by looking at how hard we are going after loose balls, how hard we are running the floor and how many rebounds we get," Huse said. "We did excellent in all three areas."
Morinia led all scorers with 29 points, while brother Lamar chipped with 15 points and four assists. Stovall scored 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Trenton Harbaugh had a solid night inside with 10 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
Tech got 18 points from Kellen Ori and 13 from Rudolph in its ninth conference loss of the season.
Huse wasn't sure his team could play much better than it did on Friday night, but it proved him wrong on Saturday night. Northern was even more focused, avenging an earlier loss to Western.
Larry Morinia continued his torrid shooting and it rubbed off on his teammates as Northern jumped to an 18-8 lead.
Western answered with a pair of three-pointers from Josh Keller to whittle the lead down to 23-19. But another Morinia three-pointer spurred a monster run as Northern outscored Western 24-7 in the remaining seven minutes of the first half to take a 47-26 halftime lead.
Western shot just 32 percent from the field in the first half and was visibly out of sync because of Northern's defensive pressure.
"Our guys seemed to be everywhere," Huse said. "We were scrambling, rotating and getting up on their shooters."
Said Morinia: "We just have that defense-first mentality. It starts with our redshirts. They get us ready every week. It's been really beneficial to help get us prepared."
Western tried desperately to get back in the game as Keller continued to bomb away from three-point range. But Northern was clicking offensively as Lamar Morinia got into the act, hitting back-to-back three-pointers to ice the game away.
Larry Morinia finished with a game-high 28 points while Lamar added 21 points. Stovall had another solid night with 14 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
"Everybody had a hand in these two victories," Huse said. "Reid hit some big shots for us, Trenton had some big rebounds, Walter Runsabove gave us some good minutes and Leo Bullchild hit some key shots. Our players are putting the team ahead of themselves and that is what you need to make a championship run."
Western was led by Keller with 25 points on six three-pointers, while Brandon Day and Neil Christiaens added 13 and 12, respectively.
The big stat for Northern was holding Western's Jason Buell, the conference's third leading scorer, to four points and without a field goal.
"Landen did a great job on Buell," Huse said. "Our whole team played great defensively. That's a high-powered team, and for us to hold them to that many points is an accomplishment."
The weekend's success gave the Lights a different mentality as they approach their final four games of the season.
"It's huge for us," Morinia said. "It's a morale builder. You could not ask for anything more. This is why you play basketball is for these next four games. We want that home playoff spot and these next four games will decide it."
Said Huse: "We want this kind of momentum going into the remainder of the season. Our kids are learning how to win and it's giving us more confidence. I think they knew all along they could do it. It's just a matter of understanding what it took to do it."
Northern will play Carroll College on Thursday night in Helena in a game televised by Omega and travel to Billings to face Rocky Mountain College on Saturday.
MONTANA TECH (58)
Jeremy Rudolph 3-10 7-7 13, Shane Sutton 1-5 0-0 3, Pat Weber 1-2 1-2 3, Andy Anderson 1-4 0-0 2, Dave Scott 4-7 3-4 11, Nate Harris 1-5 0-0 2, Matt Beckwith 1-2 0-0 2, Clinton Kaufman 0-4 0-0 0, David Dunn 0-0 0-0 0, Kellen Ori 7-15 2-3 18, Jesse Youngren 2-5 0-1 4. Totals: 21-59 13-17.
Larry Morinia 10-18 5-11 29, Reid Stovall 5-8 2-2 12, Lamar Morinia 5-10 6-9 16, Landen Grant 1-4 0-0 2, Trenton Harbaugh 3-4 4-8 10, Zach McLean 0-0 2-2 2, Leo Bullchild 2-2 0-0 5, Walter Runsabove 3-3 0-0 9, Travis Moran 1-1 2-6 4, Steve Ahrens 0-1 0-0 0, Dustin Sawejka 1-8 3-4 5. Totals: 31-59 24-44.
Halftime: MSUN 38-32. Three-point goals: Tech 3-13 (Sutton 1-5, Weber 0-1, Harris 0-3, Kauffman 0-2, Ori 2-2), MSUN 8-14 (Larry Morinia 4-5, Lamar Morinia 0-2, Grant 0-3, Bullchild 1-1, Runsabove 3-3). Rebounds: Tech 20 (Ori 8), MSUN 49 (Harbaugh 14). Team Fouls: Tech 31, MSUN 18. Fouled out - Dunn. Assists: Tech 14 (Dunn 4), MSUN 20 (Lamar Morinia 4, Larry Morinia had 4). Turnovers: 18, MSUN 15.
Brandon Day 5-8 2-4 13, Kevin Flatow 1-3 2-2 4, Neil Christiaens 4-8 2-2 12, Jason Buell 0-8 4-6 4, Josh Keller 7-10 5-5 25, Derek Hibbert 0-4 0-0 0, Blaine Hanson 0-1 0-0 0, Jeff Feenstra 5-9 0-0 11. Totals 22-51 15-19 69.
Larry Morinia 11-15 3-4 28, Reid Stovall 7-9 0-1 14, Lamar Morinia 6-10 4-6 21, Landen Grant 2-5 0-1 5, Trenton Harbaugh 1-2 0-0 2, Zach McLean 0-0 0-0 0, Leo Bullchild 1-4 0-0 2, Walter Runsabove 2-4 2-2 8, Travis Moran 1-1 1-2 4, Steve Ahrens 0-1 0-0 0, Dustin Sawejka 2-7 4-4 8. Totals 33-58 14-20 92.
Halftime: MSUN 49, UM-W 28. Three-point goals: UM-W 10-19 (Day 1-1, Christiaens 2-2, Buell 0-3, Keller 6-8, Hibbert 0-2, Hanson 0-1, Feenstra 1-2,) MSUN 12-22 (Larry Morinia 3-5, Stovall 0-1, Lamar Morinia 5-8, Grant 1-2, Bullchild 0-1, Runsabove 2-4, Moran 1-1). Rebounds: UM-W 21 (Day 5, Flatow 5), MSUN 33 (Stovall 8). Assists: UM-W 22 (Keller 4), MSUN 26 (Stovall 7). Turnovers: UM-W 17, MSUN 15. Team fouls: UM-W 21, MSUN 20. Fouled out - Flatow, Hanson.