By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
Being ranked in the NAIA top 25 basketball poll is definitely an accomplishment for the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team.
It's a reward for all of the hard work and success that the Skylight have experienced this season, particularly in the last few weeks.
But being ranked isn't just compensation, it's an invitation for opponents to play their best basketball against you.
Northern, 19-6 overall and 5-2 in conference, is ranked 25th this week and will be put to the test this weekend in a pair of tough Frontier Conference road games. The Skylights will face Montana Tech tonight at 6 p.m. in Butte, and then travel to Dillon for a matchup with UM-Western on Saturday also at 6.
"Obviously we know about it and it's a reward for the work we've put in this season," said Skylight head coach Mike Erickson of the team's first national ranking in over four years. "But we can drop out much faster than we got in. There is a target on your back when you're ranked and you get everybody's best game."
Perhaps no team knows that philosophy better than the Skylights, who knocked off UM-Western and Lewis-Clark State when both teams were nationally ranked.
Of course, those two wins came in the friendly confines of the MSU-Northern gymnasium where the Skylights are a perfect 10-0.
All of Northern's six losses came on the road, including their most recent, a pair of tough losses at Rocky Mountain College and Carroll College.
For the Skylights to stay ranked and more importantly contend for a Frontier Conference title, they must find a way to win on the road.
"We know we've struggled on the road," Erickson said. "It's all about our mental approach. We can't come out and fall behind and expect to come back on the road.
"We have to come out and play like we're 10 points down from the opening tip."
Erickson expects that mentality tonight even against a Tech squad with 1-6 record in conference and a 4-17 record overall.
"We can't go in there overlooking a team like Tech," he said. "They are playing with a lot of confidence and a nothing-to-lose attitude. They are dangerous."
Erickson doesn't need a long memory to remember a similar situation. Two years ago, his team was 6-1 and atop the conference standings, before strolling into Tech's HPER Complex and getting unceremoniously bounced.
"We've had our problems in that gym," he said. "You look at the way conference play has been and you know it can happen."
Tech does a have a solid nucleus of starters with seniors Letty Powell and Kaila Fowler and junior Marcie Alzheimer
Powell is a three-year starter, who had 23 points, including six 3-pointers against Northern earlier this season. Fowler is leading the Diggers in scoring at 12.2 points per game. Alzheimer is adding 10.3 points and 7.7 rebounds a game.
As a team, Tech is scoring just 58.5 points per game, while giving up 76.1 points per game.
While Friday night's game will be difficult, Saturday's game with UM-Western is going to be a dogfight.
The Bulldogs, who were ranked 22nd in NAIA at the time, will be out for a little revenge for an 88-87 loss on Jan. 7 in Havre.
"We're going to be ready," Erickson said. "We know we're going into a hostile environment against a team that really wants to beat us. But we want to prove that we're capable of beating good teams on the road."
Western may not be ranked at the moment, but that doesn't mean the Bulldogs aren't considered one of the best teams in the conference.
Even if Western isn't the best team, it might be the biggest. The Bulldogs are led by twin tower posts Jill Feller and Katherine Sunwall.
Feller, who stands 6-4, is fourth in the conference in scoring at 16.5 points per game and first in rebounding at 9.6 rebounds. She is also shooting 61 percent from the field.
Sunwall is listed at 6-2 and is averaging 14.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. The duo combined for 40 points and 24 rebounds in the loss to Northern.
"We don't want to get into slow paced game with them because of their size inside," Erickson said. "We want to push the tempo and get them into a transition game."
Northern was able to do that last game by using a stifling full-court press that forced the Bulldogs into 25 turnovers and changed the complexion of the game. But don't look for the Skylights to use it quite as often again.
"We know they've been preparing for us to press all game," Erickson said. "But we're going to use it sparingly. We used it the first time to get us back into the game."
One thing that must change for Northern is rebounding. Western outrebounded the Skylights 42-24, including a ridiculous 25 offensive rebounds.
"We can't have that happen again and expect to win," Erickson said. "We have to be better on the boards."
But it isn't just rebounding. Erickson know his team must be better in every facet of the game.
"We have to raise our level of play and go out there and fight for two wins," he said.