By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Consider it a wake-up call answered.
The Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team got a little complacent a week ago and suffered a pair of frustrating conference losses.
However, a rested, refocused and remotivated Skylight squad rebounded with a pair of dominant home wins over Westminster College and Lewis-Clark State at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
Northern opened the weekend with one of its most complete games of the season with a 76-57 win over the Westminster College Griffins.
Despite coming in with a 3-15 record on the season, Westminster played solidly in the first half, answering a potent Skylight offense point for point.
Westminster jumped out to a 6-0 lead on 3-pointers from Emily Johnson and Lindsey Huffman. From there, the Griffins would led for much of the first half.
"I was really proud of how our girls played in the first half," said first-year Westminster head coach J.D. Gustin. "This is a difficult place to come in and play, and I really expected Northern to come out and punch us in the mouth right away. But we kind of gave them that initial punch."
Westminster's initial punch didn't knock the Skylights out. Northern fought back to tie the game at 19 on a DeLayne Johnston putback. The two teams traded baskets over the next few minutes, but the Skylights took the lead on a pair of Megan Valgardson free throws. Johnston added two more buckets inside to give Northern a 38-35 lead at halftime.
"We felt like we were just trading points with them in the first half," said Skylights head coach Mike Erickson. "They had some shooters step up and make some big shots. But once we started to pressure their guards a little more, it started to give them trouble."
Actually, the Skylights were giving problems to more than just the Griffins' guards. Center Shalee Fackrell, the conference's leading scorer (23 ppg) and rebounder (12.3 rpg) was frustrated early on with the Skylight defense, scoring just two points in the first half.
Northern put any Westminster hopes of an upset to rest midway through the second half.
The Griffins cut the lead to three at 48-45 with 12 minutes remaining, but the Skylights answered with a Kristie Pullin 3-pointer that sparked a 19-4 run over the next six minutes to seal the win.
During the run and for the entire game, the Skylights got excellent shots thanks to precision execution and unselfish passing, as evidenced by the team's 23 assists and 68 percent shooting in the second half.
"We have really been working hard on executing our plays in practice and it showed," said forward Michele VanDyke, who finished with 14 points and five rebounds on 6-7 shooting. "When we move the ball like that, everybody gets really good looks. It's really contagious playing that way."
Johnston broke out of her offensive funk with 15 points and nine rebounds, while Megan Valgardson and Jessi Reome added 12 points each.
"DeLayne had a big night," Erickson said. "Any time that a player who is struggling offensively can score 15 points, it's only going to help their confidence. It's a hint of what she's capable of."
But it wasn't just the Skylights' scoring. They held Westminster to just 22 points in the second half on seven field goals and 23 percent shooting. Fackrell finished with 10 points and nine rebounds, but made only two baskets in 10 attempts. The conference's second leading scorer, Lindsey Huffman, led the Griffins with 16 points.
"They did a nice job of doubling Shalee," Gustin said. "We haven't had a team double-team her this season and she got pretty frustrated. You know it's going to be tough to win when your best player is not playing well."
While the win over Westminster was nice, it was somewhat expected. The Skylights' bigger challenge came on Saturday when they faced a Lewis-Clark State team ranked 20th in the country and fresh off being upset by Great Falls the night before.
As motivated as the Warriors were, the Skylights were prepared, jumping out to a 24-11 first-half lead and never looking back in a 74-56 win.
"We really wanted this game," Erickson said. "They really wanted to go out and step up to the challenge. We knew LC was going to come out fired up after losing to UGF, but we matched their intensity and really raised our level of play."
Northern kept a 10-point cushion for the first half, despite shooting just 34 percent from the field. The Skylights were solid defensively, limiting the Warriors to 25 percent shooting, including an icy 1-14 from 3-point range.
"We couldn't make anything in the first half," said LC head coach Brian Orr. "We missed some easy stuff inside and we couldn't get a 3-pointer to fall."
Said Erickson: "We were taking them out of their sets with our defense. We were getting to their shooters."
LC tried to come back in the second half behind the play of center Ashley Baker, cutting the lead to 45-39 with 14:56 remaining, but eight consecutive points from VanDyke, including a pair of 3-point plays, pushed the lead back to double figures.
"Give Northern credit," Orr said. "We made some little runs to try and get back into it and they answered with some big shots."
Despite playing better in the second half, the Warriors still only managed to shoot 32 percent for the game and turned the ball over 17 times.
"Shooting 32 percent from the field isn't going to win you road games in this conference," Orr said.
"Our defense won these two game for us this weekend," Erickson said. "We got balanced scoring, executed on offense and defense and played a complete game."
VanDyke finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, while Valgardson added 17 points and 13 rebounds. Jaci Heny added 18 points, five rebounds and three assists.
"Our post play was excellent this weekend," Erickson said. "Michele continued to play great. She is becoming so hard to guard inside."
Baker led LC with 21 points and 15 rebounds, while Nikki Haerling added 14 in the loss.
With the wins, Northern improved to 4-2 in conference and 18-6 overall. The Skylights are tied with Rocky Mountain College for second in the standings. Northern will host Great Falls on Saturday.
MSU-NORTHERN 76, WESTMINSTER 57
WESTMINSTER (3-15, 0-4)
Emily Johnson 5-13 0-0 13; Lindsey Huffman 5-14 4-4 16; Shalee Fackrell 2-10 6-6 10; Angie Layton 3-9 2-7 8; Jennifer Barney 2-4 0-0 4; Lani Johnson 0-1 0-0 0; Ashley Baldwin 0-1 0-0 0; Alicia Haberle 2-5 0-0 6; Tiff Dodge 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 19-58 12-17 57.
MSU-NORTHERN (17-6, 3-2)
Michele VanDyke 6-7 2-4 14; Megan Valgardson 4-10 4-4 12; Jaci Heny 2-7 3-5 7; Jessi Reome 4-7 2-2 12; Camille Gardner 1-5 0-0 3; Heather Riener 0-1 2-3 2; DeLayne Johnston 7-10 1-4 15; Kristie Pullin 4-5 0-0 9; Ashley Trulock 1-3 0-0 2. Totals: 29-55 14-22 76.
Halftime score: MSU-N 38, WC 35. Three-point goals: WC 7-20 (Johnson 3-8, Huffman 2-6, Layton 0-2, Haberle 2-4), MSU-N 4-11 (Reome 2-4, Gardner 1-3, Heny 0-2, Pullin 1-2). Rebounds: WC 31 (Fackrell 9); MSU-N 42 (Johnston 9, Valgardson 6) Assists: WC 8 (Johnson 4); MSU-N 23 (Heny 9, Gardner 4). Turnovers: WC 13, MSU-N 12. Total fouls: WC 19, MSU-N 13. Fouled out: Fackrell; Technicals: none.
MSU-NORTHERN 74, LEWIS-CLARK ST. 56
LEWIS-CLARK ST. (3-2, 14-7)
Cami Kalbfleisch 0-5 0-0 0; Kendra West 3-10 1-2 8; Ashley Baker 9-18 3-5 21; Nikki Haerling 6-11 0-0 14; Jade Fulbright 2-9 0-0 5; Katie Hart 2-8 0-0 4; Terri Wittmer 0-3 0-0 0; Katya Yancheva 1-2 0-0 2; Danielle Boggs 0-1 0-0 0; Vanessa West 0-5 0-0 0; Leah McCauley 1-3 0-0 2. Totals: 24-75 4-7 56.
MSU-NORTHERN (4-2, 18-6)
Michele VanDyke 7-10 5-7 19; Megan Valgardson 5-11 7-12 17; Jaci Heny 5-12 5-5 18; Jessi Reome 3-9 2-2 9; Camille Gardner 1-7 2-2 5; Kristie Pullin 1-4 0-2 2; DeLayne Johnston 1-2 2-3 4; Jena Heggem 0-2 0-0 0; Ashley Trulock 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 23-58 23-33 74.
Halftime score: MSU-N 33, LCSC 23. Three-point goals: LCSC 4-27 (Kalbfleisch 0-4, West 1-5, Haerling 2-5, Fulbright 1-3, Hart 0-2, Wittmer 0-2, Yancheva 0-1, Boggs 0-1, West 0-4), MSU-N 5-19 (Heny 3-6, Reome 1-6, Gardner 1-4, Pullin 0-1, Heggem 0-2). Rebounds: LCSC 48 (Baker 15); MSU-N 44 (Valgardson 13, VanDyke 12) Assists: LCSC 11 (Fulbright 6); MSU-N 15 (Reome 4, Gardner 4)). Turnovers: LCSC 17, MSU-N 15. Total fouls: LCSC 23, MSU-N 8. Fouled out: West; Technicals: none.