By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
There are two reactions to losing a key player: Let it affect you and play worse, or shake it off and raise your level of play.
The members of the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team chose the latter on Saturday night in a 98-88 win over the University of Great Falls at a packed McLaughlin Center in Great Falls.
Northern played its final game of the regular season without starting center Megan Valgardson, after head coach Mike Erickson decided to suspend her for the game.
With their tallest and most dominant inside player in street clothes on the bench and leading scorer Jessi Reome riddled with back pain, the Skylights played small ball with a shorter lineup, that pushed, pressed and poured in points.
"We had players step it up and really play great," Erickson said. "With Megan out, we knew we needed some players to rise to the occasion and we got that."
Indeed, the Skylights had six players score in double figures, including some season-best performances, as they looked ready to roll into this week's Frontier Conference tournament.
Northern jumped out to an early lead behind blistering 60 percent shooting in the first half, including 8-10 shooting from 3-point range.
"We came out and really got our transition game going and it led to some easy scores," Erickson said. "That really got us going offensively."
Unfortunately for the Skylights, the smaller lineup left them vulnerable inside as UGF pounded away on the offensive boards and scored inside at will to stay right with Northern.
"We gave up some stuff inside and some second-chance points," Erickson said. "We knew we would without Megan in there and having sometimes four guards on the floor at once. But the girls really battled and our offense kept us in it."
Playing Great Falls, your offense had better be decent, because the high-scoring Argos are going to put up points on teams no matter how good the defense is.
Northern was able to take a 50-42 lead in the final 30 seconds of the first half with six straight points in the short amount of time.
"That little burst was big," Erickson said. "It pushed the lead to eight points and really gave us a cushion going into the second half."
That cushion would prove vital as the Argos made a series of runs behind the play of Nichole Neill, Dana Ball, Kim Freeman and Jayla McPherson.
"We knew they were going to make some runs in the second half," Erickson said. "They have so many weapons. But we were able to hit some big shots and maintain our lead."
Nobody hit bigger shots than Reome, who, despite the ailing back, led the Skylights with 25 points off the bench, and 9-10 shooting, including 5-6 shooting from 3-point range.
Northern also got 18 points and seven rebounds from DeLayne Johnston, who started in place of Valgardson.
"I think DeLayne played her best game of the season," Erickson said. "She picked the right time to have it. She's really been playing well in practice and it showed against UGF."
Despite early foul trouble, point guard Camille Gardner also had 18 points, while adding seven assists.
In another breakout performance, sophomore Jena Heggem, who started in place of Reome, had a season-best performance with 13 points on 5-5 shooting and three 3-pointers.
"Jena was fantastic," Erickson said. "She was very aggressive all night and really had a great game."
Michele VanDyke and Jaci Heny added 10 points each, and the duo combined for 12 rebounds and 14 assists.
As a team, Northern had a season-best 24 assists.
"We played so unselfishly tonight," Erickson said. "It was really fun to watch. We were making the extra pass, getting open shots and knocking them down."
UGF had four players in double figures, led by Dana Ball's 22 points. Former Skylight Nichole Neill had 20 points, while Kim Freeman added 15 points and eight rebounds in their final home game in Great Falls. Former HHS standout Jayla McPherson added 14 points and 10 rebounds.
UGF finished the season with a 5-9 conference record and an 11-16 overall record.
Northern finished its regular season in fourth place in the Frontier with a 9-5 record and 23-9 overall record. The Skylights will play fifth-place Rocky Mountain College in the first round of the Frontier Conference Tournament on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the new Maroon Activity Center in Butte.