By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
There are a number of reasons why teams didn't want to play the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team in today's Frontier Conference tournament at the Maroon Activity Center in Butte.
Probably the biggest reason is that the Lights have lost enough close games this season that they are overdue to win one soon.
The Lights will look to break a seven-game conference losing streak when they face the Lewis-Clark State Warriors at 2 p.m.
Northern comes into the tournament as the sixth seed with a 3-11 conference record. However, head coach Shawn Huse is the first to admit that his team easily could have been 9-5 in conference and in the top half of the conference had it just executed better on offense and made free throws down the stretch.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we had opportunities to, and could have won at least six more conference games," he said. "We just struggled down the stretch in those games. I think it was a definite growing process."
Instead, the Lights will face one of the top teams in the conference, albeit a team they defeated for one of their three league wins.
In what seems like years ago, Northern grabbed an early lead and hung on to defeat Lewis-Clark State 58-56 on Jan. 22 in Havre
"Obviously, beating them before gives our kids the confidence of knowing how they did it," Huse said. "Really, we're looking at going into the tournament with an 0-0 record just like everyone else."
While the last eight losses were aggravating, the last loss of the regular season to the University of Great Falls just seemed to be the proverbial cherry on the Lights' mountain of frustration.
"The regular season has been rough for our team, but I think it's something that's stuck in our craw a little and we can take some of that frustration out at the tourney," Huse said.
The Lights will have to play their best basketball of the season to defeat a very good Lewis-Clark State team.
The Warriors finished the season with a 10-4 conference record and a 22-8 record overall.
One of those wins was a 75-51 win over the Lights in Lewiston, Idaho, on Feb. 17.
The Warriors have a wealth of size, athleticism and tournament experience, returning all but three players from the squad that won last year's Frontier Conference tourney.
Point guard Danny Allen leads LC, scoring 14.5 points per game and dishing out 3.8 assists. The lightning-quick Allen is also a pest defensively, scooping up 1.8 steals per game.
The Warriors also have all-conference-level players in 6-9 forward Martin Brothers and 6-6 forward John Moore and 6-2 shooting guard Joey Ray.
"There is no question about their talent," Huse said. "They have a ton of weapons offensively and they are one of the best defensive teams in the conference."
The Warriors' stinginess on defense really is something that concerns Huse.
"They can really ratchet up that defensive pressure and force you into turnovers for easy scores," Huse said. "We have to make sure we get a shot every time down the floor. That is a big thing for our team."
Indeed, Northern only averages 70.7 points per game, while Lewis-Clark holds opponents to just 60.7 points per game.
Northern will look to a balanced attack featuring center Marcus Wilson and forward Jordan Matthews. Matthews leads the Lights in scoring at 12.9 points per game, and is coming off a 29-point performance against UGF.
Wilson was Northern's best scoring threat early in the conference season, but has been slowed by a knee injury. He is still averaging 10.7 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds per game.
Forward Reid Stovall is also a solid player averaging 8.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game and is the Lights' on-floor leader.
Also contributing has been freshman Cory Brothers, who is averaging 8.8 points per game and has scored in double figures in over half of Northern's games.
If the earlier win isn't enough to prove to his team that it's capable of advancing in the tourney, Huse also points to the time of year.
"It's tournament time in college basketball and every year you hear about a team getting hot and knocking some teams off," he said. "We have to remember it's just one game, not a series of games. And one thing we have proven this season is that we have opportunities to win games."