Havre Daily News sports editor
For a time on Saturday night, it looked like the understaffed Skylights had finally hit a wall.
The Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team is going to be shorthanded the rest of the season because of its Nov. 14 van crash in western Montana.
Still, the Skylights were winners of four straight games heading into Saturday night's home contest with NCAA Division III Whitworth College. On Saturday, they went without a field goal for a 10-minute stretch in the first half, and they experienced a similar drought midway through the second half.
If one thing holds true about this Skylight team, it is their resiliancy, which was never more evident than on Saturday night as they found a way to defeat the Pirates, in spite of their offensive woes, 77-70 at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse in Havre.
The win over Whitworth extended the Skylights' winning streak to five games.
“That is what I am most proud of our kids for tonight,” MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat said. “In the first half, we were bad. We had too many turnovers. We had too many one-and-done trips down the floor, but they still found a way to overcome all of that and get a win. That really says a lot about the kids we have on this team. And I am just very proud of them tonight.”
One of the main reasons the Skylights were able to overcome an unusually poor shooting night from the outside was their performance from the free-throw line. Northern made an astounding 29 free throws in 31 attempts, including key foul shots in the final five minutes of a game that was still very much in doubt.
“Going 29 for 31 from the foul line is amazing,” Mouat said. “That is definitely getting the job done, and that, along with our ability to get to the foul line down the stretch, was very instrumental in us getting a victory.”
The two teams traded leads seven times in the first five minutes of the game before the Pirates went on a 10-0 run to secure the lead. During that run, Northern's field goal drought also began and would not end until DeLayne Johnston scored some of her game-high 23 points to get the Skylights rolling again. Despite their shooting troubles, the Skylights managed to claw their way back into the contest and wound up tied with the Pirates, 38-38 at intermission.
“That was another really big achievement for this team,” Mouat said. “Tonight was the first game in a long time that we didn't have a real comfortable lead at the half. To get a win where we didn't play our best and we had to play from behind says a lot about this team.”
The second half would see the Skylights fall behind, catch up and fall behind again, mainly because of the inside dominance of Whitworth's Kelli Highland, who scored 10 of her 14 points in the final 20 minutes of the contest.
In all, each team held the lead 11 times in the second half and they were tied six times. But it was the Pirates who looked to steal the game away first, when they went on a 12-1 run and led 59-52 with under eight minutes remaining in the game.
But that is when Northern's foul shooting, the inside play of Johnston and the steady shooting of Camille Gardner took over for good. The Skylights made 18 straight free throws in the final six minutes of the contest, while Whitworth went cold from the floor, enabling the Skylights to not only take the lead but keep it for good.
“DeLayne played great tonight, and she really has been playing well for the last three weeks,” Mouat said. “And Camille Gardner was a calming influence down the stretch for us tonight. She also made some really big buckets, too.
“But I think everybody stepped up and made plays for us down the stretch,” he added. “We didn't play very well at all at times, but down the stretch we made enough plays to win.”
Aside from Johnston's 23 points, she also grabbed nine rebounds and was 12-13 from the charity stripe. Gardner was also outstanding, scoring 20 points, including a pair of 3-pointers and an 8-8 performance from the foul line.
The Skylights leading scorer, senior Jaci Heny, had an off night shooting the basketball, as the physical Whitworth defense bottled her up for most of the game. Still, Heny managed an effective 16 points and she too was a perfect 8-8 from the free throw line. Michele VanDyke also added a solid 11 points in the win.
“I think everybody really stepped up when they had to tonight,” Mouat said. “One player I am very proud of is Mandee Carroll.
“Mandee came in for three minutes and we didn't miss a beat,” he added. “She did a great job of helping us out when Jaci and Camille were in foul trouble, and she played with a lot of poise and confidence.”
Whitworth (3-4), which made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III national tournament a year ago, got a team-high 17 points from Emily Hendrickson and 12 points from Chelsea Combs to go along with Highland's 14. They played a very physical brand of basketball that caused Northern offensive troubles throughout the night. But ultimately, fouls hurt the Pirates in the end, along with a dismal 39 percent shooting night from the field.
“That is a very good basketball team we just beat,” Mouat said. “I know they are young, but they are very talented and very athletic. They came in here and really took it to us, and we feel very fortunate to come away with a victory tonight.”
The Skylights (9-3) will have 12 days off until their Dec. 29 game against highly touted North Georgia College in Honolulu, Hawaii. Northern will also face Olivet Nazarene College on Dec. 31 in Hawaii.
Skylights 77, Pirates 70
Whitworth - Teresa Zeitler 2-4 1-2 5, Holly Ridings 3-12 2-2 9, Emily Hendrickson 5-10 6-7 17, Alida Bower 4-13 0-0 9, Chelsea Combs 5-5 2-2 12, Kelli Highland 7-11 0-0 14, Meghan Beauchamp 1-4 2-2 4. Totals: 27-68 13-15 70.
MSU-N - DeLayne Johnston 6-10 11-12 23, Jena Heggem 2-9 0-0 4, Michele VanDyke 5-7 1-1 11, Camille Gardner 5-10 8-8 20, Jaci Heny 4-8 8-8 16, Neesha Bravard 1-2 0-0 2, Ashley Trulock 0-1 1-2 1. Totals: 23-47 29-31 77.
3-point goals - Whitworth 3-17 (Ridings 1, Hendrickson 1, Bower), MSU-N 2-10 (Gardner 2); Rebounds - Whitworth 35, MSU-N 31; Total fouls - Whitworth 24, MSU-N 17; Fouled out - Bower, Wegman. Halftime - MSU-N 38, Whitworth 38.