By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
No matter how much you try to avoid thinking about it or convincing yourself it's not important, it's still there. In the same place in the back of your mind along with your high school girlfriend's phone number or the number of home runs you hit in little league.
For many members on the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team, the disappointment from last year's first-round loss to Rocky Mountain College is planted squarely amidst the clutter in the back of their minds.
While head coach Shawn Huse doesn't want his players thinking completely about revenge, they will get a chance at redemption as Lights travel to Billings to take on the Battlin' Bears in first-round action of the Frontier Conference tournament on Saturday night.
"It's been mentioned that Rocky was the team that knocked us off last season," Huse said.
And it wasn't Huse doing the mentioning. Rather it was the returning trio of senior captains in Larry and Lamar Morinia and Travis Moran.
"We know exactly who beat us out last year," Lamar Morinia said. "We've been thinking about this for a long time now and we have a chance to get a little revenge."
"They wanted another shot at Rocky in the first round and they got it," Huse said. "Here's their chance. But I think it goes a little deeper than that. These are three special seniors that want to end their season and careers on a high note and getting to Butte is the start of that."
Still, the whole idea of revenge isn't something that translates into wins on the basketball floor. It does offer some motivation in terms of practice and preparation, but once the opening tip flies, revenge is out the door and execution and intensity will take over.
"We don't want to get too caught up in that whole revenge thing," Huse said. "It's crunch time. The motivation should be there by the situation alone. If that doesn't motivate them, I don't know what does."
The motivation won't just be limited to the Lights. Rocky is in the midst of a three-game losing streak that Northern initiated with a 92-89 win in Billings on Feb. 20. Last weekend, Rocky dropped a pair of games at Montana Tech and UM-Western to fall out of the Frontier Conference regular season title picture.
"I think they probably feel like they let an opportunity get away from them this past weekend," Huse said. "I am sure they will be very motivated"
But if the Bears have proven one thing in the past two seasons, it's that past wins and losses mean nothing in the conference tournament. Rocky is the two-time defending tournament champion, despite never coming in as the favorite.
"They've proven in the past that they can win in the tournament," Huse said. "They have guys that experienced both of those runs."
One of those guys is former KG standout Jake Stuart, who is the unquestioned leader of the Bears.
Stuart is second on the team in scoring at just under 15 points per game, while chipping in with just under six rebounds per game. Stuart seems to always play his best basketball in the tournament.
Joining Stuart is 6-9 center Luke Kunkel, who averages 15.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. He has been absolutely dominant against Northern in the two meetings this season. In Rocky's 84-80 win in Havre, Kunkel scored 29 points on 12-16 shooting while pulling down eight rebounds. In Billings, Kunkel scored 29 points on 13-15 shooting and adding 10 rebounds.
"We want to just to slow him down the best we can," Huse said. "We know he's a load inside and that he'll probably get some points and some rebounds. We can't just focus on him because they do have other weapons."
Indeed, besides Kunkel and Stuart, Rocky also features a solid guard tandem in Eddie Stack and Greg Wood and tremendously explosive Bobby Coleman coming off the bench.
"There really are no secrets," Huse said. "we've played them in two very close games. We know what about their personnel and what they like to do. And they know the same things about us."
Rocky has become all too familiar with the Morinias. Larry and Lamar have combined for 48 and 49 points in the two games. Larry Morinia, in particular, has scorched the Bears, averaging 32 points in two games.
Northern will also need solid contributions from its frontcourt defensively to stop Kunkel while getting some offensive production from Trenton Harbaugh, Reid Stovall and Dustin Sawejka off the bench.
"There's three things we have to do to win," said Lamar Morinia "Rebounding. Coach always tells us how important rebounding is and of course we all know making free throws and we know if Rocky goes into a zone we can't be just spot-up shooters."
Winning the battle on the boards is something Huse has stressed all season. Northern is solid rebounding team, but for it to have success there can't be a huge discrepancy in rebounding.
Free-throw shooting has been Northern's Achilles heel all season. The Lights are last in the conference in free-throw shooting percentage at a paltry 65 percent On more than one occasion, Northern has been hurt by missed free throws in close games.
As for the zone, in the Lights most recent loss to Westminster College, the Griffins used a stifling zone that turned Northern's offense stagnant.
"We have to penetrate against the zone and force them to rotate," Morinia said. "It has to be everyone trying to break it down."
As evenly matched as the two teams are, Huse knows that the game's final decision could come down to one or two plays.
"I think it's going to come down to what a lot of games come down to -which team wants it more," Huse said. Unfortunately, it will also come down to who can get one or two breaks in the game. It usually does, especially with two teams that have played such close games."
Huse hopes his players can make their own breaks to pick up a win and advance to next weekend's semifinal in Butte.
"We have the same philosophy we've always had," Huse said. "We'll take a win by 21 points or one point - either way we'll take them."
"We know that they are a very good basketball team and a very capable basketball team. It will take a great effort from us. But I think we've proved that we're more than good enough to compete with them."
The key will be getting a good game offensively and defensively, with consistent free-throw shooting and solid rebounding - basically a complete game.
"We have yet to put a complete game together," Huse said. "I think we're due for one. If we ever put one together, we're going to be a very tough team to beat."
The Lights and Bears tip off at 7 p.m. at the Fortin Center on the Rocky Mountain College campus. The game can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.