Havre Daily News sports editor
They might not play like it for an entire game, or even an entire half. But right now, the Montana State University-Northern Skylights are perfect in their attempt to resurrect what was once a promising season.
On Wednesday night at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse, the Skylights used the 3-point line to extend their winning streak to two games with a 83-62 thrashing of the University of Great Falls in nonconference action.
The Skylights drilled 9 of 17 threes and made three in a row to stave off a late UGF charge in the second half. For the game, Northern shot 52 percent from the 3-point line, including an astounding 68 percent in the first half.
“We were hot from the outside tonight,” MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat said. “When you shoot the ball like that from the 3-point line, it certainly helps your cause, and we shot the ball very well.
“I don't think we played as good a defense as we did on Saturday night,” he added. “But we got off to a good start tonight and our offense was really clicking.”
Clicking might be an understatement. After the two teams traded leads throughout the first 10 minutes of the first half, the Skylights began their outside assault. An early inside presence by Michele VanDyke opened up the perimeter and senior guards Jaci Heny and Camille Gardner took advantage, as did shooting guard Jena Heggem. The trio combined to hit five threes in the first half, the last of which came at the four- minute mark, when Gardner drilled a trey that capped a 15-2 run by the Skylights.
UGF managed to battle back to get the game within 10 points, 43-33 at halftime, but Northern would never trail again.
The hot shooting start was sparked by the emotion of Northern's first home game since the Nov. 14 crash of the team's van that left two players with season-ending injuries. Gardner said her team came out fired up right from the start.
“We always talk about how the first five minutes of the game are the most important,” Gardner said. I think our whole team came out pumped and ready to play, and we played really well in the first half.”
Gardner, in particular, played extremely well. She was the calming influence in the second half as UGF made a run at the Skylights behind the outstanding play of former Skylight Laura Keaster. The junior guard was everywhere for the Argos, especially in the second half, and she refused to let her team die.
Keaster sparked a UGF run that pulled the Argos to within four points, 50-46, with 12 minutes remaining in the game.
“She was a load for us to handle,” Mouat said of Keaster's performance. “Give her a lot of credit. It probably wasn't easy for her to come back here and play. But she came out and took it right to us.”
Despite Keaster's efforts, UGF could not overcome the hot shooting of Gardner and Heny. The duo hit three straight treys to ignite a 10-0 run and up Northern's lead to 67-50 with 6:43 remaining in the contest. That run sealed the Argos' fate.
“How we played offensively was key for us tonight,” Mouat said. “It seemed like when we needed a big hoop, we got it every time.
“Jaci and Camille really led us tonight and they lead us in different ways,” he added. “But everybody chipped in when we needed them to tonight.”
Heny dropped in a game-high 26 points on 9-16 shooting, including four 3-pointers. Gardner was every bit as sensational, pouring in 21 points and nailing three treys. Her night also included eight rebounds and five assists.
“Camille is just a tremendous player,” Mouat said. “And she had a great game for us. She understands this offense and she just knows how to play the game the right way.”
Said Gardner: “I think we did a great job of moving the ball around tonight. We knew that they (UGF) would come back on us some, but we passed the ball so well and we seemed to find the open man at the right times. Fortunately, I was able to get open and knock down some shots.”
The Skylights also got 15 points from DeLayne Johnston and nine from VanDyke. The duo also paced the improved MSU-N rebounding effort with eight and 10, respectively.
Despite the outstanding numbers offensively, Mouat said the win was even more gratifying, given the contributions the Skylights got from every player, including the return of sophomore forward Ashley Trulock, who played sparingly. Trulock had sat out the Skylights' prior game because of injuries from the crash.
“I thought everyone came in and gave us a great lift tonight,” Mouat said. “Neesha Bravard and Mandee Carroll both came in and gave us really good minutes when our starters needed a rest. They both showed that they are capable of playing more minutes and doing good things when they are on the floor.
“And it was really nice to have Ashley back,” he added. “Having her allows us the ability to rest Michele and DeLayne a little more and I think that was crucial for us tonight.”
UGF got a team-high 20 points from Keaster in her return to Havre. Junior Meghan Shwantes was the only other Argo to reach double figures, scoring 12 points.
“This was a real nice win for this team,” Mouat said. “Given where we have been the last month, we feel very good about how we have played the last two games and we are very happy to have these two wins.”
What the Skylights were also thrilled over was just playing basketball on their home floor. While playing at home is special to any basketball team, Gardner said it was especially gratifying on Wednesday night.
“It felt really good to finally be at home,” she said. “We had a really good crowd and they were really into the game.
“With all that has gone on with us the last month, it is just a really good feeling to play at home and celebrate getting a big win,” she added.
The Skylights (7-3) will now head north for the weekend when they travel to Camrose, Alberta, for a pair of games at Augustana College. Northern will play Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 5 p.m.
Skylights 83, Argos 62
UGF - Mindy Houx 1-3 0-2 2, Meghan Schwantes 6-9 0-1 12, Laura Keaster 7-12 4-4 20, Angie Cliff 2-6 1-2 5, Melanie Green 4-10 0-2 9, Jessica Smith 3-11 0-0 6, Kalyn Fairbanks 1-4 0-0 2, Cassidy Brunner 2-9 0-0 6. Totals: 26-65 5-9 62.
MSU-N - DeLayne Johnston 6-12 3-5 15, Jena Heggem 2-4 0-0 6, Michele VanDyke 4-9 1-2 9, Camille Gardner 9-13 0-0 21, Jaci Heny 9-16 4-7 26, Neesha Bravard 1-2 0-1 2, Ashley Trulock 2-3 0-0 4. Totals: 33-60 8-15 83.
3-point goals - UGF 5-19 (Keaster 2, Brunner 2, Green 1), MSU-N 9-17 (Heny 4, Gardner 3, Heggem 2); Rebounds - UGF 34, MSU-N 39; Total fouls - UGF 18, MSU-N 10; Fouled out - None.