By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
There are very few guarantees in the Frontier Conference, but a few years ago, wins over the University of Great Falls in basketball were darn close to a sure thing.
But now, about the only sure thing with playing UGF is that you are going to be tested.
The steadily improving Argo women's and men's basketball teams will invade the MSU-Northern gymnasium Saturday night to take on the Skylights and Lights in yet another tough Frontier Conference clash. The women's game will tip off at 6 p.m. with the men to follow at 8 p.m.
The opening game will feature another meeting in the budding rivalry between the Skylights and the Argos.
The two teams have already met once this season on Dec. 11 in a nonconference tilt that saw Northern pick up a 75-70 win.
Even though it was just over a month ago, the Argos are a more-improved team. They come into Havre with a busload of confidence, having won their last two games, including a 74-64 win over then 20th-ranked Lewis-Clark State.
UGF, 3-3 in conference and 9-11, is in the midst of their finest season since the program was reinstated. Head coach Roger Hatler has his team playing its best basketball when it matters most.
"That's scary, they're just going out with nothing to lose everything to gain, "Erickson said. "They're beating top teams right now. It's a rivalry setting. You know three years ago, they came in here and beat us.
When the Argos are playing their best, it means putting the ball in the basket. UGF is one of the top offensive teams in the conference, averaging 75.6 points per game, good for second in the conference.
The Argos rank second in the conference in field goal percentage at 44 percent, but their most important stat is their team free-throw percentage which comes in at 76 percent.
But it isn't just the percentage that's impressive, it's the amount of free throws UGF shoots. The Argos have attempted 516 free throws on the season, the most in the conference. The 392 made free throws is more than three teams in the conference have even attempted.
"Watching film, I don't know how they get there so much," Erickson said. "We've stressed all week that we can't put them on free-throw line and give them easy points."
Great Falls will never be labeled as a deep team. It's starters log heavy minutes and provide the bulk of production. The Argos are led by the foursome of Kim Freeman, Nichole Neill, Jayla McPherson and Dana Ball.
Freeman is fourth in the conference in scoring at 15.8 points per game. She also averages 6.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. Neill, a former Skylights is scoring 15.3 points per game and is dangerous outside shooter, that has sank 39 3-pointers this season.
"Freeman is such a competitor," Erickson said. "She just finds ways to score. I think she realizes that her career is ending and she's making the most of these games. We know Nichole is great shooter and she's going to keep shooting even when she isn't hitting and we have to respect that."
McPherson, a former Havre High standout, does the dirty work inside for UGF. She is averaging just under 10 points per game, while grabbing 6.4 rebounds and shooting 58 percent from the field. Ball is the newcomer to the group, but has been explosive at times. She is averaging 13.9 points per game.
"McPherson always plays well against us, especially here in Havre," Erickson said. "She's very solid. Ball is very versatile and can score from the inside and outside. She does a little bit of everything."
The foursome, along with transfer point guard Melanie Green, log the majority of the minutes. Erickson hopes to wear the Argos down on both ends of the floor.
"We want to be physical defensively and get into their shooters, take them out of theirs sets and rebound," he said."If we can play defense like we did last week, we should be fine. Offensively, we'd like to get them in a running game and use our depth."
While the UGF women's team has dominated the headlines in the Electric City, the Argo men have quietly went about its business, compiling a 1-5 conference and 4-18 overall record. But don't let the losing record fool you, six of those losses came against NCAA Division I schools.
"I don't know if there is a team in NAIA that's played a schedule as tough as UGF," said Light head coach Shawn Huse. "They've faced some other very good teams as well, and most of them on the road."
The Argos experience against top-level opponents is just one of many reasons why Huse isn't letting his Lights squad overlook the Argos. Northern, 2-4 in conference and 11-9, isn't really in a position to overlook many teams.
"Great Falls only lost to Westminster by two and we lost by 10," Huse said. "We know that they are more than capable of beating any team in this conference. Right now, we can't afford to look past any team we play."
UGF will present some matchup problems for the Lights with guards that are lightning quick and decent size up front.
Sophomore point guard James Edwards leads UGF, averaging 15.2 points, 2.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game. He also get help from backcourt mates John Chapman and Anthony Owens.
"They try to break you down off the dribble and create shots," Huse said. "They are extremely fast and they also have some shooters you have to respect."
Up front, UGF is led by rebounding machine Rico Suazo, forward Todd Tomlinson and 6-8 center Igor Fishbeyn.
Despite their weapons, the Argos are averaging just 67 points a game - worst in the conference, which seems like a tough matchup considering Northern is holding opponents to 66.2 points per game.
"We're going to rely on our defense," Huse said. "They can make you play ugly with their defensive pressure and show you a lot of different things. But if our defense stays consistent, it can carry us through games when we aren't as good offensively."
Huse knows that winning every game at home is key. But he isn't about to mark down a win just yet.
"We know we can't just show up and expect to win," he said. "Great Falls is very-improved from the past and any team that does that to them is looking to get beat."
The games can be heard locally on 92.5 KPQX-FM.