By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Jaci Heny's introduction to the Frontier Conference was a memorable one.
With her team trailing by one, the junior transfer guard sank a pair for free throws with 1.2 seconds remaining, securing a 88-87 win for the MSU-Northern women's basketball team over UM-Western Friday night at the MSU-Northern gym.
It was the first lead the Skylights had in the game, after mounting a prolonged comeback.
Western's attempt at a full-court pass and last-second shot was foiled by, of course, Heny. She intercepted the long pass giving Northern an upset win over the 22nd-ranked Bulldogs in both team's Frontier Conference opener.
"I think the situation was easier for Jaci because she did the same thing against Biola in our last game," said Skylights head coach Mike Erickson. "She looked at me with a little smile and I knew she was going to make them. That's just the type of competitor she is. She really wants to be in that situation."
Said Heny: "I felt very confident. Once I made the first one, it made the second one much easier."
Heny and the Skylights wouldn't have been in the situation if weren't for an improbable comeback.
Northern started off extremely sluggish and tight. Western took advantage, rolling to a 25-9 lead.
"We were a little tight early on," Heny admitted. "Once we started our full-court pressure, it really gave us some energy."
Indeed, it gave Northern energy and Western fits. The Bulldogs were frustrated by the harassing pressure of Heny, Kristie Pullin and Camille Gardner.
Western turned the ball over on seven of its next eight possessions, as Northern began to cut into the lead. The Skylights got the lead to single digits at 29-21 as Pullin converted a tough score in the lane and Jessi Reome sank one of two free throws.
"We didn't handle their defensive pressure very well," said Western head coach Kevin Engellant. "We made some careless turnovers and gave them some easy scoring opportunities."
Getting the big lead early seemed to be more detrimental to Western than helpful. The Bulldogs seemed to relax a little too much on both sides of the ball.
"Our defensive pressure went way down after we got up big," said senior forward and former HHS standout Alyssa Matter. "We knew they would go on a run eventually, but we didn't do a good job of stepping up and stopping the run."
The Skylights continued to chip away, using the full-court pressure, whittling the lead down to 36-35 on a Reome three-pointer off a Hillary Taylor turnover. Northern tied the game at 37 moments later on a pretty move inside by Michele VanDyke. As hard as they worked to get back in the game, the Skylights never did take the lead in the first half, tying the game on several occasions and trailing 48-46 at halftime.
"We didn't expect to have to run our full-court pressure as much as we did," Erickson said. "But we had to something for our total lack of rebounding."
Indeed, Western outebounded Northern 19-9 in the first half, including a ridiculous 14 offensive rebounds, leading to 25 points. Conversely, the Bulldogs had 12 first-half turnovers leading to 10 points.
In the second half, the Skylights still found themselves playing catch-up. Every time Northern would tie the game and look to pull ahead, Western came up with an offensive rebound and a big shot inside.
"They were hitting shots at the right time," Erickson said. "It took a lot of energy to get back into the game in the first half, but I thought we still had some gas left in the tank for the second half."
Early on it appeared to be true, but Erickson was generally concerned when Western grabbed an 82-70 lead with 5:17 remaining on a Megan Schmitz jump shot.
"They hit some big shots and I really started feeling like it was out of reach for us to come back," he said. "But the girls proved me wrong."
Gardner answered Schmitz with a three-pointer from the wing. Pullin stole the ensuing inbounds pass, which eventually led to another Reome three-pointer. Western's Jill Feller answered with a baseline jump shot to push the lead back to 84-76.
VanDyke answered with four points over the next minute and a half to cut the lead to 84-80. Western then lost its focus defensively and never picked Gardner up on Northern's next possession. The junior point guard dribbled right up to the top the key and sank an uncontested three-pointer to cut the lead to one at 84-83.
"We made some mistakes down the stretch that really hurt us," Engellant admitted. "You can't have breakdowns late in the game like that."
Feller tried to hold the lead for Western, converting a three-point play to push the lead to 87-83. Western had a chance to add to the lead, but Schmitz missed the front end of one-plus-one bonus. Gardner grabbed the rebound and found Heny open on the wing for a three-pointer to cut the lead to 87-86 with 59 seconds remaining.
Western still had a chance to put Northern away as Pullin forced up a shot that Katherine Sunwall rebounded. She was immediately fouled, but again Western couldn't ice the game away at the free-throw line as she missed the front end of the bonus. VanDyke corralled the miss and Erickson called timeout with 15 seconds remaining.
On its final possession, Northern worked the ball around before Heny penetrated and Taylor fouled her on the attempt, setting up Heny's heroics.
Besides hitting the game-winning free throws, Heny finished with a team-high 23 points and five assists. Reome added 21 points, while Gardner chipped in with 12 points and six assists.
"Our bench really sparked us and really played a big role in the win," Erickson said. "Kristie, Michele and Ashley (Trulock) really gave us some good minutes."
VanDyke scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds, Pullin had 10 points, four steals and two assists, while Trulock had six points, including two big baskets late in the game.
Western was led by Feller with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Sunwall had 19 points and 11 boards, while Schmitz had 19 points and five assists.
Statistically, Western dominated Northern, especially on the boards, outrebounding Northern 42-24. The Bulldogs had more offensive rebounds (26) than the Skylight had total rebounds. However, 25 turnovers leading to 18 points really hurt Western's chances.
With such an emotional win on Friday night, Erickson was fearful of a letdown against Montana Tech on Saturday night.
His fears were met as Northern found itself in a dogfight early with the scrappy Diggers.
The Skylights broke open a tied game with 10 minutes remaining in the second half, piecing together a 23-0 run to pull away in a 93-75 win. It was Northern's 12th straight win.
"Tech came out and played really aggressive and with nothing to lose," Erickson said. "We were a little fatigued, but we got going in the second half."
Reome led all scorers with 25 points, highlighted by five three-pointers. Heny had 22 points and six assists, while VanDyke was once again solid off the bench with 22 points on 9-11 shooting.
"Michele has been playing that way for the last eight games," Erickson said. "She really has accepted her role and understands what we need her to do. She is playing with a lot confidence and a big reason why were on this winning streak."
Northern will be in action on Thursday against Rocky Mountain College in Billings and on Saturday against Carroll College in Helena.
MSU-NORTHERN 88, UM-WESTERN 87
UM-WESTERN (0-1, 12-4)
Hillary Taylor 4-11 0-0 9, Katherine Sunwall 8-11 3-4 19, Jill Feller 9-14 3-7 21, Alyssa Matter 2-8 0-0 5, Megan Schmitz 7-10 0-3 19, Lindsey Scott 2-5 0-0 5, Megan Janke 0-2 0-0 0, Michelle Sullivan 1-2 0-0 2, Billi Suhr 1-2 0-0 2, Heather Kennedy 1-3 3-4 5. Totals 35-68 9-18 87.
MSU-NORTHERN (1-0, 15-4)
DeLayne Johnston 0-3 0-0 0, Megan Valgardson 1-2 3-4 5, Jaci Heny 7-11, 7-7 23, Jessi Reome 8-12 2-2 21, Camille Gardner 5-9 0-0 12, Kristie Pullin 3-6 3-4 10, Jena Heggem 0-2 0-0 0, Michele VanDyke 4-7 3-4 11, Ashley Trulock 3-4 0-0 6. Totals 31-56 18-21 88.
Halftime - UM-W 48-46. Three-pointers - UM-W 8-21 (Taylor 1-5, Matter 1-4, Schmitz 5-8, Scott 1-2, Sullivan 0-1, Suhr 0-1), MSU-N 8-15 (Heny 2-3, Reome 3-6, Gardner 2-3, Pullin 1-2, Heggem 0-1). Rebounds - UM-W 42 (Feller 13, Sunwall 11), MSU-N 24 (Valgardson 7). Assists - UM-W 21 (Taylor 6), MSU-N 23 (Gardner 6). Steals - UM-W 5 (Taylor 3), MSU-N 10 (Pullin 4). Turnovers - UM-W 25, MSU-N 16. Total fouls - UM-W 16, MSU-N 16. Fouled out - none. Technicals - none.
MSU-NORTHERN 93, MONTANA TECH 75
MONTANA TECH (0-2, 5-13)
Katie Strietz 1-3 1-2 3, Collette Phillips 6-12 2-2 14, Letty Powell 8-18 1-3 23, Marcie Alzheimer 11-15 1-3 24, Kaila Fowler 3-6 0-0 6, Jessi O'Neill 1-2 0-0 3, Kyle Cook 1-2 0-0 2, Steph Baertsch 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 31-59 5-9 75.
MSU-NORTHERN (2-0, 16-4)
DeLayne Johnston 0-0 2-2 2, Megan Valgardson 2-7 3-6 7, Jaci Heny 8-11 4-4 22, Jessi Reome 10-19 0-0 25, Camille Gardner 1-5 0-0 3, Heather Riener 0-1 0-0 0, Kristie Pullin 1-3 0-1 2, Jena Heggem 1-1 1-2 4, Michele VanDyke 9-11 4-7 22, Ashley Trulock 3-3 0-0 6. Totals 35-61 14-22 93.
Halftime - Tech 42-40. Three-pointers - Tech 8-17 (Powell 6-12, Alzheimer 1-3, O'Neill 1-1, Baertsch 0-1), MSU-N 9-17 (Heny 2-4, Reome 5-9, Gardner 1-2, Pullin 0-1, Heggem 1-1). Rebounds - Tech 28 (Alzheimer 10), MSU-N 30 (Valgardson 9). Assists - Tech 19 (Powell 10), MSU-N 27 (Heny 6, Pullin 6). Steals - Tech 4 (Fowler 2), MSU-N 12 (Valgardson 3, Heny 3). Turnovers - Tech 26, MSU-N 10. Totals fouls - Tech 18, MSU-N 10. Fouled out - none. Technicals - none.