By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
For the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team, playing on the road has become pretty much a routine.
After all, the Skylights played 13 road games this season already, so don't think that a trip to Billings for tonight's Frontier Conference matchup with Rocky Mountain College has them shaking in their sneakers.
"It's something that we're more than used to," said head coach Mike Erickson. "Not only have we played a lot of road games, but we learned what it takes to be successful on the road, which is big."
Of course, Erickson admitted, a Frontier Conference road trip has a few more ramifications than a preseason tournament in Canada.
"Conference games obviously mean more and it makes playing on the road that much more difficult," Erickson said. "Rocky isn't the easiest place to go in and play."
Indeed, almost every team in the conference is tough at home and the Bears are no different
Rocky comes into tonight's game with a 1-1 conference record and a 5-11 record overall. Still, Erickson isn't taking anything for granted.
"I know they are a much better team than their record reflects," he said. "They've played some tough teams in their nonconference schedule."
Indeed, Rocky played a host of DAC-10 schools along with two NCAA Division II squads and NCAA Division I Montana State.
"This won't be an easy game by any means," Erickson said. "We've got to come out mentally focused and ready to play." Erickson said.
Because one thing is for certain, the Bears, led by point guard Jenny Balgua, will. Balgua, a former Skylight, missed all of last season with a knee injury. Now in her senior year, she is trying to make the most of it.
Her stats aren't overwhelming, but solid. She leads Rocky in almost every category at 12.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.6 steals per game. Still, it's the intangibles that she brings that have Erickson concerned.
"She is such a competitor and she can't stand to lose," Erickson said. "The big thing with her is that she makes her teammates better. If she's scoring points, that's just a bonus."
One of the recipients of several Balgua passes is senior Katherine Bitz.
The former Big Sandy standout is enjoying a solid junior year, averaging 8.3 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.
"Bitz can score either inside or out," Erickson said. "She really does a little bit of everything for them."
Rocky also gets healthy contributions from freshman Gretchen Wall (9.1 ppg) and sophomore Alyssa Root (9 ppg). Former Havre High standout Jeri Matter has also played well of late for Rocky and is averaging 5.3 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.
Missing from the Rocky roster are the Griffith twins, Ashley and Amber, who seemed to play for about 11 years, at least to Erickson.
"The Griffiths accounted for almost 60 percent of their scoring last season," he said. "This year they spread it out more."
Despite Wall, Matter, Root and sophomore Mandy Norby, Rocky isn't an inside-dominated team. The Bears prefer to bomb away from the outside to open things up.
"They can easily attempt 30 three-pointers in a game," Erickson said "We need to get into their shooters right away and not allow them to get going from the outside."
Even though Northern is comfortable living the hotel lifestyle on the road, Erickson may bring his team back after the Rocky game to get some rest at home before heading to Helena to take on 25th-ranked Carroll College on Saturday.
If there is one team that gave Northern fits last season, it would have to be the Saints, under second year head coach Shawn Nelson.
Carroll, 14-5 overall and 1-1 in conference, beat Northern twice last season and currently leads the conference in scoring at 80.7 points per game. The Saints are beating opponents by an average of 18.7 points per game this season.
"Carroll is tough," Erickson admitted. "They are one of the better teams in the league for a reason. They don't take plays off ever. They may not have a lot of size, but they play extremely hard on every possession"
The reason for Carroll's success is a potent scoring attack. The Saints not only put points on the scoreboard, they are deadly efficient in doing so.
"They run their plays and sets so well," Erickson said. "They are very disciplined and always seem to get a good shot every possession. It's going to a challenge for us defensively."
The Saints are a little different on offense this year. Gone is All-American shooting guard Tara Zoanni and her close to 23 points per game.
Instead, Carroll is using a more balanced attack led by junior Emili Woody, who is averaging 15.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
"Woody always seems to be around the ball," Erickson said. "She gets her points in different ways and she's not afraid to do the dirty work inside."
Besides Woody, Carroll is getting 12.7 points from former HHS all-stater and true freshman Jolene Fuzesy.
"We know how dangerous Fuzesy is from the outside," Erickson said. "They are going to set plenty of screens and plays for her to get open looks."
Fuzesy is second in the conference, behind Northern's Jessi Reome, in three-pointers made with 39. She is also second in the conference in three-point percentage at 45 percent.
Carroll also gets solid production from junior Andrea Hall (11 ppg), sophomore Laci High (9.2 ppg) and junior Carly Syverson (9 ppg).
"We have to try and keep them out of sync on offense and keep them off balance," Erickson said. "We'll try to mix things up a little and really pressure them."
One aspect that must change is rebounding. Northern managed to defeat UM-Western last weekend despite getting crushed on the boards 42-24.
"The big thing for us against Carroll will be rebounding," Erickson said. "We have to do a better job than we did last weekend. We can't allow Carroll to get second shots with how solid their offense is."
With his team tied for first in the Frontier with Lewis-Clark State, a pair of wins this weekend would give Northern a solid start and a possible spot in the NAIA top 25.
"Our girls know that it is a higher level of play for conference road games," he said. "But our team seems to step up its level of play for big games. And in conference, they are all big games."
The Skylights and Bears tip off at 6 p.m. and can be heard locally on 92.5 KPQX-FM.