By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
There is some consolation for the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team. It can't possibly get any worse than it did last Saturday night for the Skylights in a disappointing 74-51 loss to UM-Western in Dillon.
It wasn't quite rock bottom for Northern, but it was down there a bit. Fortunately, things are looking up as the Skylights return to Havre and the MSU-Northern gym, where they've been basically unbeatable this season, for a pair of big Frontier Conference games against Carroll College and Rocky Mountain College.
"In the game of basketball, anything is possible," said Skylights head coach Mike Erickson. "You hope those nights don't happen very often. I really think we have put last weekend behind us. One thing we have to be is more positive. We took ourselves out of the game mentally when our shots weren't going in."
Northern, currently tied for second in the conference with a 6-3 league record and a 20-7 record overall, will need a positive attitude and its shots to be falling in order to maintain its perfect 10-0 record at home on Friday night against conference leader and 17th-ranked Carroll College.
The Saints come into Havre with a sparkling 8-1 conference record and a 21-5 record overall. They sit alone atop the Frontier Conference, ahead of UM-Western, Northern and Lewis-Clark State which all have 6-3 records.
Carroll's only conference loss came at LC State early in the season. One of their eight leagues wins is a 78-77 win in Helena. In that game, Northern rallied from a late deficit only to see its last-second game-winning shot blocked at the buzzer.
"We definitely felt like we had our chances to win the game," Erickson said. "We kind of let one slip away. The girls are definitely excited to play Carroll again, there really shouldn't be any problem for them to get up for this game."
If revenge or rivalry wasn't enough, a glance at the league and national standings should offer some added motivation.
The Skylights still have an outside shot of winning the regular season title, but a win over the Saints is a paramount to that happening.
Besides a league title, Northern could also still get an at large bid to the NAIA national tournament in Tennessee. A win over nationally-ranked Carroll would definitely be a step in that direction.
"We want to go out and give ourselves a chance to finish out on top," Erickson said. "We know we can't really afford to lose to do that. We also have given ourselves another way with a possible at-large bid."
But a win won't be easy, not even at home, against a very good Saints team.
Carroll leads the Frontier Conference in just about every several offensive statistical categories, including points per game (82.4), scoring margin (18.6), 3-pointers made (216) and 3-point field goal percentage (.391).
"There is a reason they are first in the conference," Erickson said. "They have a very good team with some individuals."
Leading that group is senior Emili Woody, a definite candidate for league MVP honors.
Woody averages 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game. She can beat you inside or outside and is a ferocious competitor.
Also contributing is former Havre High standout Jolene Fuzesy, who is having a solid freshman campaign. Fuzesy is averaging 13.5 points per game and is shooting 48 percent from 3-point range, having made 53 3's on the season. Carroll is also getting 12.3 points a game from Andrea Hall.
"We made some little mistakes that really cost us against Carroll," Erickson said. "We know we can't to that again. I really feel like its going to come down making free throws, not allowing them to get the free-throw line and rebounding, which is something we haven't done well this season."
Erickson might be selling his team's rebounding prowess a little short. The Skylights average 35.6 rebounds per game.
However, Carroll ranks second in the league at 43.4 rebounds per game. In the games Northern has struggled, it has been beaten bad on the boards. In the loss to Western, the Skylights gave up 25 offensive rebounds. It just simply can't happen against a Carroll squad that has a penchant for scooping up offensive rebounds.
"The way their offense is set up, they seem to have one or two girls right under the basket any time a shot goes up," Erickson said. "And they are so aggressive, they really believe every rebound is theirs. We've worked all week on being better on the boards."
Northern will be looking for a little more revenge on Saturday night when they take on Rocky Mountain College.
The Bears, 5-4 in conference and 9-14 overall, knocked off Northern 72-67 earlier this season in Billings.
As was the case against Carroll, Northern had a final shot to win the game, but failed to convert.
"You look at that game, we really hurt ourselves at times," Erickson said. "We didn't shoot the ball well at all and made some mistakes down the stretch. That's something that will be big for us this weekend, we need to play much smarter and make better decisions in the game's final minutes."
Rocky point guard Jenny Balgua, a former Skylight herself, will be playing her final game against Northern - a prospect that Erickson isn't exactly sad about.
Balgua is averaging 12.8 points, 3.6 assists and 2.6 steals per game. She's made 42 3-pointers on the season and is the unquestioned leader of the Bears. Balgua scored 22 points and dished out six assists in the team's first meeting. Every big shot Rocky needed to stop a Skylight comeback, Balgua hit.
"We have to do a better job against Balgua," he said. "She killed us last time with her penetration and scoring. We know she's a competitor and when she plays well she raises their team's level of play."
Besides Balgua, Rocky gets 9.8 points a game from Alyssa Root. The local duo of former Havre High standout Jeri Matter and Big Sandy star Katherine Bitz combined to average 13 points and eight rebounds a game. Rocky will be without transfer Steph Neubauer, who is out with a broken tailbone. But the Bears get contributions from Sarah Bills, Rae Dawn Lei and Chester's Jamie Graham.
"They get a little bit of production from a lot of different players," Erickson said. "But all of them are capable of big games."
As a team, the Bears average 68.5 points per game and hit 41 percent of its shots. They sit a game behind the Skylights in the Frontier standings and Erickson knows his team can't overlook them.
"They already beat us once this season, there is nothing to say they can't come in here and beat us again," Erickson said. "We have to show up focused and ready to play."
One player that Erickson expects to be extremely focused on Saturday is senior Megan Valgardson, who will be playing in her final home game as a Skylight.
The 6-3 Valgardson is averaging 10.3 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds per game and has been a solid low-post presence in her two years at Northern.
"It should be a sentimental night for Megan," Erickson said. "She has made a big impact on this team and really helped to build this program to where its at right now. Hopefully, we can step it up and get a win for her in her last game."
Valgardson can and has dominated at times this season. Erickson hopes for a couple of those performances this weekend.
"You hope she wants to make the most of her last games here," he said. "Megan plays with a lot of pride and I am sure she will be ready to go."
With their season wrapping up with three road games, Erickson and the Skylights know the importance of making the most of their final home games.
"It's important to get a couple of wins so we can have some added confidence when we head out on the road," Erickson said. "This is a very important weekend for us."
The Skylights will tip off at 6 p.m. both nights. The games can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM or www.msun.edu/athletics.
NOTES: Tonight the Northern programs will honor Bill Filler and Richard Hary, who passed away last year in between games.