By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Montana State University-Northern women's basketball coach Mike Erickson must have said the word 747 times this week in practice as his team prepared for today's Frontier Conference tournament first-round game against the Univeristy of Great Falls Argos (4-26).
But with his team playing some of its best basketball season and a home court advantage for this opening round game, Erickson will use the word for the 748th time if it will make a difference.
"When you beat a team like Great Falls that has been on the bottom of the league for the last few years, it's easy for teams to overlook them," Erickson said. "We've beat them soundly both times this year, but it's a different game. Every team is much better this time of the year and obviously they are a much better team right now."
Indeed, as strange as it may seem to some people not familiar with the recent conference games, the Argos are playing some of the best basketball in the conference. UGF has won three of its last five games to vault itself from last place into the tournament's sixth seed.
Great Falls is coming off a weekend split with Westminster College and Lewis-Clark State UGF edged Westminster 66-61 and fell to LC 78-76.
"Watching them on videos, I really believe it's confidence," Erickson said of UGF's recent success. "They're playing with nothing to lose and everything to gain. They've been playing the same style of basketball they always have, they're just making their shots right now."
Make no mistake, Great Falls can shoot the basketball. The Argos have two of the conference's top five scorers in forward Kim Freeman and guard Nichole Neill.
And with the recent solid play of former Havre High standout Jayla McPherson, UGF has a much-needed third scorer which has proven to be the difference in their recent success.
"It's no secret," Erickson said. "They have them some shooters on their team. They have gals that can score. If you're not scoring, you'll be in a tough ball game."
Freeman is third in the conference, averaging 17.2 points per game while leading UGF with 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game.
"Freeman is so athletic," said Northern point guard Anna Bateman. "She can take you inside or hit from the outside. She's one of the best players in the conference."
Neill, who played with Bateman and the Skylights last season, is fifth in the conference in scoring at 15.8 points per game and is shooting 39 percent from three-point range and has sank 51 treys on the season.
"We know that Nichole can shoot it from the outside if left open," Erickson said.
Said Bateman: "We need to try and make her first couple shots. If she makes those first few, she gets confident and really gets going."
McPherson is the wildcard of the trio. At 5-10, she is UGF's tallest starter and really its only post presence. She established herself as a scoring threat with a pair of 20-plus point games against Montana Tech and Western.
"We've got to key on their key players, and they have three key players in Freeman, Neill and McPherson," Erickson said.
UGF's key players will take the majority of the shots and they will take them early and often. The Argos don't exactly work the shot clock down too much.
"They take quick shots and they get a lot of shots off in a game," Erickson said. "Usually it's only one or two passes before a shot goes up. We have to be aware of that."
To combat Great Falls' quick-strike offense, Northern will look to the one aspect that has propelled it to three-straight conference wins - ball pressure.
"That's been our game lately is ball pressure," Bateman said "That's why we've been on our little run is because we changed up our defensive strategy and we bring it at teams and see how they handle it."
Ball pressure has proven to be effective against Great Falls in the past. The Argos committed 52 turnovers combined in the two games against Northern this season. They are susceptible to mistakes, especially against full-court pressure. And the Skylights will introduce them to the full-court pressure early and often in hopes of pushing the pace of play.
"We have to get them in an up-tempo game by making them put it on the ground in the full-court and half-court and force them into turnovers," Erickson said. "We have to be in attack mode on defense and make them try to play our style of game."
Northern's style is a fast-paced full-court game that should wear down UGF if executed properly. Both Freeman and Neill play close to 40 minutes per game and UGF doesn't exactly go real deep into its bench.
"We know that if we play at the tempo we want, we can wear them down," Erickson said.
To play at the tempo, Northern must not only be good defensively, but it must rebound and make good decisions with the basketball. You can't start a fast break without getting a defensive rebound, and you can't score on a fast break by turning it over.
In the win over UGF in Great Falls, the Skylights made things close in the first half by committing some silly mistakes with the basketball.
"We need to take care of the ball, down there we didn't do a very good job," Bateman said. "And rebounding, you can't have a transition game without rebounding."
Rebounding really hasn't been a problem against UGF 71-48 in the two games. And with McPherson offering the only low-post defensive presence, the Skylights' frontcourt, particularly center Megan Valgardson, has flourished.
Valgardson had 23 points and six rebounds in a win over the Argos in Havre, and Erickson is looking for a repeat performance.
"Megan needs to be our primary factor to our offense," Erickson said "I told her to expect to be double and triple teams. She's good enough passer to find our shooters."
The Skylights have two of the most accurate three-point shooters in the conference in Jessi Reome and Bateman. Reome leads the Frontier in three-point percentage at 44 percent (32-66). Bateman is eighth at 38 percent (28-65).
Thanks to Erickson's constant reminders, the Skylights shouldn't overlook the Argos. Still, that doesn't mean UGF isn't dangerous.
"I must have said it at least five or six times this week, but we can't allow them even a sniff of victory," Erickson said. "They've won some games lately and if we allow them to think that they can beat us, they will play well."
Playing well shouldn't be a problem for Northern. The Skylights have played extremely well at home of late with their only home conference loss coming to regular season champ Carroll College.
"We know that this our home crowd and home gym and our last home game this year," Bateman said. "It's all on our side to perform well and if we can get a little run early, we can take them right out of the game."
Said Erickson: "I think the girls are excited. The tournament is something new to everybody. We've accomplished a lot of our goals we set at the beginning of the season. I just hope they're not satisfied with that. We can definitely overachieve in what we wanted to do this year and were in a great position to do it."
The Skylights and Argos tip off at 7 p.m. and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM. The winner will advance to Monday's semifinal in Butte.