By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
There has been no shortage of close games for the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team. Unfortunately for the Lights, there has been a shortage of wins in those close games.
In what seems to be an overwhelming theme of this season, Northern had chances to win both of its conference home games this past weekend, only to see them slip away in heartbreaking fashion.
Friday night started the pain with a tough 70-65 loss to league-leading Carroll College.
The Fighting Saints fought off a late Northern comeback and got a solid performance from forward Jeff Hays to secure the win.
The Lights overcame a 41-31 halftime deficit, cutting the lead to two points with 10 minutes remaining on a free throw by Dan Brigham.
Northern continued to battle as freshman Cory Brothers came off the bench to score 12 of his 17 points in the second half.
Carroll pushed its lead to 56-49 with about seven minutes remaining. Brothers brought the Lights back, scoring eight points, including two 3-pointers, to cut the lead back to three.
A Brothers driving basket cut the lead to 64-63 with two minutes remaining, but Hays answered with a score of his own inside. Brothers kept the Lights close with a pair of free throws.
Down 65-64, Northern fouled on the ensuing inbounds play, putting Hays at the line. The University of Montana transfer calmly sank both free throws to push the lead back to three.
The Lights still had one last chance to tie the game with 12.4 seconds remaining and possession of the ball in its frontcourt.
However, for the second straight week the set play that head coach Shawn Huse called for never materialized. Brothers was forced to improvise and tried to drive past Hays. Unfortunately, he lost the ball off his leg out of bounds.
Hays was fouled again and sank both free throws to ice the game.
"We had a set play called with different options and again we had one guy that didn't execute it right and the whole thing broke down," Huse said. "Cory saw an opening and used the drive option. Unfortunately he lost the ball out of bounds."
It was a disappointing end to a game in which Northern showed so much heart getting back into the game.
"You can't blame it on any one person or any one play," Huse said. "There were a lot of plays throughout the game that were just as important. Cory had a heck of a ball game for us. He gave us a big boost off the bench, and he stepped up and showed a lot of guts in not being afraid to take the ball in that situation."
Brothers finished with a team-high 17 points, while Marcus Wilson added 10 points.
Hays finished with a game-high 24 points. He was big down the stretch, scoring 10 of his team's final 12 points.
"Hays is a tough matchup. That's why we recruited him so hard to come here," Huse joked. "He's a very solid player and the son of a very good high school coach (Eric Hays). His experience really showed. Last year, he missed some big shots at the end of the game and they lost. This year he comes in and hits those big shots."
Carroll also got 15 points and 12 rebounds from Andy Brown and 13 from Ross Gustafson.
Any effects from the heartbreaking loss weren't readily apparent in Saturday night's game with Rocky Mountain College. Northern started off solid, but couldn't finish off the Bears, and fell 54-52.
The Lights added another tough way to lose a close game. Rocky was clinging to a 52-50 lead with eight seconds remaining when Wes Morales rebounded teammate David Ellis' missed free throw and put it back while getting fouled to push the lead back to four points.
"Not to make excuses, but it was a tough rebound," Huse said. "It hit the back of the rim and shot way up in the air and then came down and bounced two more times. Blocking out a good athlete like Morales for that long isn't easy to do."
Northern had its opportunities before that play, and had a chance to take the lead after Matthews tied the game at 48-48 on 3-pointers. The Lights regained possession and tried to run its offense for a go-ahead score. However, a miscommunication in the offense led to Brothers tossing the ball out of bounds.
"We decided to go with our offense because we were executing it so well and getting good looks," Huse said. "There is no doubt in my mind if we don't have that miscommunication, we would have got a good look at the basket."
As Huse said, the Lights were getting good looks, but unfortunately, the good looks weren't translating into made baskets.
Northern struggled to convert easy scoring opportunities, particularly in the first half. The Lights still led 26-23 at halftime, but it should have been more.
"We missed so many bunnies in that first half," Huse said. "We had great looks and just couldn't get anything to go down. I really think we missed out on an opportunity to go 10 or 15 before halftime."
Instead, Northern let Rocky stay in the game and the Bears scrapped out the win.
"If you let a team stay in the game, they are bound to gain some confidence," Huse said. "Rocky is a veteran team and they will take advantage of those opportunities."
Matthews was the only Light in double figures with 16 points. Rocky was led by Ellis' 13 points.
The two losses dropped Northern to 3-8 in the conference and 12-13 overall.
"If nothing else, this weekend shows we have a lot of things to learn from, to grow from and to improve on, especially late in games," Huse said. "Our inexperienced has really shown in those situations. We still haven't really found that one guy who wants to step up and take charge in those situations. We need a guy that's not afraid to put the team on his shoulders and take responsibility, win or lose."
Carroll College 70, MSU-Northern 65
Carroll College (8-2, 20-5)
Kurt Paulson 2-4 0-0 6, Jeff Hays 8-11 6-6 24, Sinan Guler 2-7 1-1 5, Andy Brown 6-14 3-5 15, Ross Gustafson 6-8 1-3 13, Travis Williams 1-2 0-0 2, Gage Brumwell 0-0 0-0 0, Derek Johnson 0-0 0-0 0, Dallas Leslie 0-3 5-5 5. Totals 25-48 13-16 70.
MSU-Northern (3-7, 12-12)
Reid Stovall 3-7 0-0 6, Marcus Wilson 4-6 2-2 10, Jordan Matthews 3-8 0-0 7, Landen Grant 0-4 0-0 0, Leo Bullchild 3-10 0-0 6, Rodrick Carter 3-7 0-0 7, Cory Brothers 5-6 4-4 17, Antonio Jordan 0-1 0-0 0, Tim Hutchins 2-2 0-0 4, Dan Brigham 3-3 2-3 8. Totals 26-54 8-9 65.
Halftime: CC 39, MSU-N 29. 3-point shooting: CC 4-13 (Paulson 2-3, Hays 2-4, Guler 0-3, Brown 0-2, Leslie 0-1); MSU-N 5-16 (Mathews 1-4, Grant 0-2, Bullchild 0-3, Carter 1-3, Brothers 3-4) Rebounds: CC 31 (Brown 12), MSU-N 24 (Stovall 6). Assists: CC 15 (Hays 4), MSU-N 13 (Stovall, Brothers 3). Turnovers: CC 15, MSU-N 13. Totals Fouls: CC 15, MSU-N 17. Fouled out: none
Rocky Mountain 54, MSU-Northern 52
ROCKY MOUNTAIN (5-6, 16-11)
Ryan Gomendi 2-6 0-0 4; David Ellis 4-11 3-4 13; Luke Kunkel 2-5 3-4 6; Eddie Stack 1-1 0-2 2; Joe Cook 4-6 3-3 11; Marcel Miller 2-4 0-0 4; Cooper Warren 1-2 2-2 4; R.J. Tollefson 0-2 0-0 0; Wes Morales 4-6 2-3 10. Totals: 20-43 12-16 54.
MSU-NORTHERN (3-8, 12-13)
Reid Stovall 1-4 3-4 5; Marcus Wilson 3-9 0-0 6; Jordan Matthews 6-10 2-2 16; Landen Grant 1-4 0-0 3; Leo Bullchild 1-1 0-0 2; Rodrick Carter 0-1 0-0 0; Cory Brothers 2-4 0-0 5; Antonio Jordan 2-4 0-0 4; Cody Gillespie 1-3 1-1 3; Tim Hutchins 1-3 1-2 3; Dan Brigham 2-4 2-2 6. Totals: 20-47 9-11 52.
Halftime: MSU-N 26, RMC 23. 3-point goals: RMC 2-9 (Gomendi 0-1, Ellis 2-6, Morales 0-1), MSU-N 3-11 (Matthews 1-4, Grant 1-2, Brothers 1-3, Jordan 0-1, Gillespie 0-1). Rebounds: RMC 23 (Morales 10, Cook 6); MSU-N 27 (Matthews 5, Wilson 4) Assists: RMC 6 (Ellis 3); MSU-N 5 (Grant 2). Turnovers: RMC 19, MSU-N 22. Total fouls: RMC 10, MSU-N 17. Fouled out: none; Technicals: none.