By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
All year long, Montana State University-Northern men's basketball coach Shawn Huse has told his players not to look at the conference standings because, with parity in the league, worrying about your place in the standings is pointless.
Instead, he has preached to his players to come out and play with a nothing-to-lose attitude and the rest will take care of itself.
But lately it's been harder and harder for Huse to convince his players not to sneak a peak. With the Lights in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, they have the opportunity to earn a share of the Frontier Conference regular season title with a pair of wins this weekend against Lewis-Clark State and Westminster College.
"It's getting a little hard to sell them on that idea," Huse said. "The fact of the matter remains that we want to play the same way that got us here, which is aggressive and free-swinging. I know I say it all the time, but it's still true."
While Huse may be avoiding the whole championship scenario, the situation isn't lost on his players.
"We know," admitted senior Travis Moran. "I've had a bunch of people come and remind me about it. But we still want to do what coach told us to do all season."
And what the Lights' have done all season is to play with nothing to lose, because they really don't have anything to lose after being picked to finish fifth in the conference.
A share of a conference title would be huge for Northern, but before they think about hanging championship banners, the Lights must win one of the two games to ensure themselves of a first-round home playoff game.
"I know I don't want this weekend to be my last home games," Moran said. "We need to get at least one win to make sure we have one more home game."
But just getting one win won't be easy as the Lights face the top two teams in the Frontier Conference.
Lewis-Clark comes into Havre tonight with a 9-3 conference record and fresh off a win over conference co-leader Westminster. The Warriors are the most dangerous team in the Frontier with a truckload of talent and a trailer full of athleticism.
"With LC it's really pick your poison," Huse said. "They have so many weapons that can beat you on any given night. And it just isn't their starting lineup. They don't have any type of drop-off in talent when they go to their bench."
The Warriors are led by shooting guard Joey Ray, who averages 12.9 point per game. But forward Martin Brothers absolutely killed Northern last time, scoring 29 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Add to that former Light Dustin Endsley and lightning- quick guard Rickey Frazier and you have a defensive nightmare for most teams.
"You can't go in thinking that you'll focus on shutting one person down, because someone else will step up and hurt you," Huse said. "You just have to play solid straight-up defense."
The Lights will go from one extreme to another on Saturday night as Westminster brings its deliberate, slow-it-down style to Havre.
The Griffins play a similar style to that of NCAA Division I Princeton, which uses a lot of backdoor cuts and the entire shot clock.
"They are definitely a different team than LC in terms of style," Huse said. "They really do a good job of controlling the tempo and forcing teams to play at their pace."
The Griffins dominated the Lights earlier this season, posting an 81-67 win in Salt Lake City. The game really wasn't even that close, as Westminster dominated all facets of the game. The Griffins are led by the Frontier Conference's leading scorer and MVP candidate, Adam Hiatt, who is averaging 21.9 points per game. WC also gets solid contributions from forwards Nick Booth, Nate Sanchez and Matt Mark, who are among the league leaders in rebounding, something that hurt Northern in the first matchup.
"Both teams absolutely killed us on the boards," Huse said. "We gave up way too many second chances to LC, and with their talent you can't to that. Against Westminster, their rebounding allowed them to dictate the tempo of the game."
But this weekend should be different. Northern is a much different team since those losses and will have the extra motivation of the conference standings and senior night for Moran and Larry and Lamar Morinia.
But the Lights' motivation may even be something simpler like, say, revenge.
"We still have a pretty bitter taste in our mouth from those two losses," Moran said. "Especially when you feel like those were games we should have won. We get that chance this weekend."
Said Huse: "Our kids just like to play competitive basketball games. They are just the type of kids who are hungry to go out and compete."
Both of the Lights games will tip off at 8 p.m. and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.