By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Playing defense should not be a totally bizarre concept in basketball. In fact, it's really simple: If you hold a team under 60 points, it's a lot easier to outscore them.
It's a concept the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team has bought into in the last few weeks.
For the third straight game, the Skylights held an opponent to under 60 points, stifling the high-scoring University of Great Falls Argos in a 72-53 win Saturday night at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
Northern used a stingy defense that forced the Argos into 27 percent shooting from the field and 2-21 shooting from 3-point range to hold UGF to 23 points under its season average of 76 points per game.
"I really think they are starting to enjoy playing defense," said Skylights head coach Mike Erickson. "Once they start smelling blood, they really start putting defensive pressure on people."
However, the Skylights' defensive success was a little different from weeks past. Northern barely used its vaunted full-court pressure and instead ratcheted up the defensive in the half-court, extending the Argos offense and contesting nearly every shot a UGF player took.
"We talked all week about getting up on them in the half-court and getting pressure on the their shooters." Erickson said. "We did a good job of beating them to spots and not playing catch-up."
With their defense frustrating UGF on every possession, the Skylights went about business on offense with frightening efficiency from the outset.
Northern jumped out to a 10-0 lead as Jessi Reome and Camille Gardner sank 3-pointers early on. The Skylights steadily built on their lead, going up 23-9 with 10:05 remaining in the first half.
"We came out ready and very focused," Erickson said. "I think it's maturity. We had a lot of girls come in and watch the game tape from two months ago on their own. They are starting to understand what they need to do to be prepared."
The extra film work seemed to pay off at both ends as Northern was getting good looks early and forcing UGF out of its offensive rhythm.
"The coaches really did a great job of scouting them," Reome said. "We watched the game tape from before and they really broke it down. We were pretty comfortable once the game started."
The Skylights' level of comfort showed, as they continued to get good shots and pushed their lead to 40-26 at halftime.
"We talked all week about not digging ourselves into a hole early in the game," said UGF head coach Roger Hatler. "But that's exactly what we did. Give them credit. They came out and took control right away."
The Argos tried desperately to fight back in the second half behind the play of former Havre High standout Jayla McPherson and teammate Kim Freeman. McPherson battled hard inside, scoring 12 points and grabbing a team-high 12 rebounds in the game. Freeman, who was draped with Northern defenders, still managed 16 points on 5-13 shooting.
The Skylights finally put UGF away for good midway through the second half. Heny and Reome sank 3-pointers and Michele VanDyke scored twice inside to bump the lead to 20.
"Everybody was contributing offensively," Reome said. "We have been playing so unselfishly lately and tonight was just a total team effort."
Reome and Gardner finished with 15 points each to lead the Skylights. The duo also sank a combined seven 3-pointers. For Reome, open looks haven't come often in conference season, but she is trying to make the most of them.
"It seemed like teams always had one of their best defenders on me," Reome said. "It's hard for me to get open some times, because I'm not the fastest person on the court. I just have to work a little bit harder to get open looks."
VanDyke had another solid game with 14 points and nine rebounds, while Jaci Heny added 13 points, five assists and a pair of 3-pointers. As a team, Northern sank 9-13 3-pointers.
"The 3-point shooting was definitely the deciding factor," Hatler said. "They shoot 9-13 and we shoot 2-21. If you look at the other statistics like rebounding and turnovers, they're pretty close."
The poor shooting night was evidenced by UGF's second- and third-leading scorers. The duo of Nichole Neill and Dana Ball combine to average over 30 points a game. Northern limited them to 10 on 2-18 shooting from the field.
"We're a better shooting team than we showed tonight," Hatler said. "But Northern defended us tough."
Said Reome: "We're really starting to buy into this defense thing. We're going hard and getting after people."
Erickson knows that the defense thing must continue as the Skylights head back out on the road for games at Montana Tech and UM-Western.
"We can't get content," he said. "There are still a lot things we need to improve on. But our girls are starting to take on things personally. They are playing with pride and fighting for their teammates. They have really bought into the whole team concept."
MSU-NORTHERN 72, U OF GREAT FALLS 53
U OF GREAT FALLS (9-12, 3-4)
Kim Freeman 5-13 5-9 16, Dana Ball 1-6 3-4 5, Nichole Neill 1-12 3-3 5, Melanie Green 1-6 6-6 8, Jayla McPherson 6-12 0-0 12, Natalie Muth 1-6 0-0 2, Francine Killeagle-Stiffarm 2-4 0-0 5, Afton Ott 0-2 0-0 0, Brittni Forster 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 17-62 17-22.
MSU-NORTHERN (19-6, 5-2)
Michele VanDyke 7-10 0-0 14, Megan Valgardson 3-9 1-3 7, Jaci Heny 4-9 3-4 13, Jessi Reome 5-10 2-2 15, Camille Gardner 5-10 1-2 15, Heather Riener 0-1 2-2 2, Kristie Pullin 1-3 1-2 3, DeLayne Johnston 0-2 1-2 1, Jena Heggem 0-0 2-2 2, Ashley Trulock 0-4 0-0 0. Totals: 25-58 13-19.
Halftime: MSU-N 40, UGF 26. 3-point goals: UGF 2-21 (Killeagle 1-1, Freeman 1-4, Ball 0-2, Neill 0-8, Green 0-1, McPherson 0-1, Muth 0-3), MSU-N 9-13 (Gardner 4-5, Reome 3-6, Heny 2-2). Rebounds: UGF 40 (McPherson 12), MSU-N 40 (VanDyke 9). Assists: UGF 8 (Neill 4), MSU-N 15 (Heny 5). Turnovers: UGF 14, MSU-N 13. Fouls: UGF 21, MSU-N 20. Fouled out: Green, Valgardson.