By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
BUTTE - Jenny Balgua can beat you in a different ways with different things. She can shoot, she can pass and she can penetrate. But Balgua's biggest play on Thursday evening came by just standing there.
Balgua stood firm, taking a crucial charge on Northern's Jaci Heny with 33.5 seconds remaining in overtime to secure Rocky Mountain College's 64-62 upset win over the Montana State University-Northern Skylights during first-round action of the Frontier Conference Women's Basketball Tournament at the Maroon Activity Center.
In a game filled with big shots, Balgua's simple defensive play would prove huge. The play erased an almost certain two points from Heny at the free-throw line, but more importantly gave Rocky possession of the ball with a 63-62 lead.
"I knew she really charges hard when she drives to the basket," Balgua said. "We talked about stepping in and taking the charge. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time."
The Bears were able to run almost 15 seconds off the clock before the Skylights were forced to foul. Steph Neubauer made the first of two free throws with 12.3 seconds remaining to up the lead to 64-62.
Following Neubauer's miss, Northern raced the ball to halfcourt and called timeout to set up a final play with 8.3 seconds remaining.
The play that head coach Mike Erickson called never really materialized for the Skylights. Northern tried to get the ball into center Megan Valgardson, but the pass was deflected. Still, Michele VanDyke found a wide- open Jessi Reome at the wing, but her 3-point shot at the buzzer was just off, ending Northern's season.
"The shot wasn't exactly what we wanted," Erickson admitted. "We wanted to get the ball inside to Megan. We felt like we could score pretty easy in there and all we needed was a two to tie the game."
While Northern didn't get the shot it was looking for, it was a good shot nonetheless, considering Reome is the top 3-point shooter in the conference in made 3-point field goals and second in percentage at more than 40 percent.
"You know that's a pretty good shot we got and we feel pretty comfortable having Jessi take that in that situation," Erickson said. "You can't put the whole
game on one shot or one person's shoulders. There were plenty of other shots that could have gone in that could have helped to determine this game."
In fact, there were more than plenty of shots that could have gone in. There was a plethora.
Northern shot the ball uncharacteristically poorly early on and it only marginally improved as the game went on.
The Skylights were a frosty 12-34 from the field in the first half and 12-43 in the second half and overtime combined, which translated into 31 percent shooting for the game.
It was even worse from long range, as Northern shot a paltry 2-17 from 3-point range.
"We weren't real crisp offensively, particularly in the first half," Erickson said. "We were much more patient in the second half, but we still just didn't shoot it real great the entire game."
Still, with the off night offensively, the Skylights were in the game. They withstood some hot shooting from Rocky early to only trail 33-28 at halftime.
With more patience offensively, the Skylights chipped away at the lead in the second half. Northern got a little help as Rocky 6-5 center Sarah Bills picked up her third foul early in the second half.
Without Bills' shot-blocking presence in the middle, the Skylights attacked the basket fearlessly. Northern sliced into Rocky's 39-32 lead as Reome scored on a pair of drives and Valgardson added back-to-back baskets inside to cut the lead to 39-38.
Reome gave Northern its first lead of the game with a layup in transition and Valgardson added to the lead with a pair of free throws.
From there Balgua simply took over, willing the Bears back into the game. She answered every Northern score with one of her own, scoring nine of Rocky's final 11 points.
But it still wasn't enough to put Northern away.
The Skylights shook off several late deficits, including a late four-point Rocky lead with 1:50 remaining as Reome banged home a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 53-52. Northern took the lead seconds later as Reome scored again on a nice pass from Heny.
Balgua tied the game with a free throw and gave Rocky a 54-52 lead with 18.9 seconds remaing in regulation on two more fouls shots.
Northern set up for a final shot with 14.3 seconds remaining and executed to perfection, finding DeLayne Johnston for an easy six-foot jump shot with 8.3 seconds remaining, which would send the game into overtime.
"Give Northern credit," said Rocky head coach Brian Henderson. "They just kept fighting back. They never gave up."
In the overtime, Rocky scored a quick six points, forcing Northern to play catchup the rest of the way.
"That's so big, scoring that first basket in overtime," Erickson said. "We had a chance to get that early lead, but we missed two good looks."
After having such a profound effect in regulation, Balgua failed to score in overtime, but had the big play of the extra frame by taking the charge. Her fingerprints were all over the Bears' win with a game-high 20 points and six rebounds and just two turnovers.
"It's really hard to put into words all the things she does and how big she is to our team," Henderson said.
If Henderson can't, Erickson certainly can.
"Big-time players step it up in big-time games, and Jenny showed once again why she is a big-time player," Erickson said.
Rocky also got solid contributions from Bills and Alyssa Root. Root had 13 points and 11 rebunds, while Bills had 12 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks while basically being a menace in the key.
"She just has to stand there to alter shots," Erickson said. "We had our chances to get her out of there, but we couldn't get her that fifth foul."
Northern was led by Reome's 16 points. Megan Valgardson had 14 points and nine rebounds in her final game as a Skylight. DeLayne Johnston added 11 points and 11 rebounds, while VanDyke chipped in with 10.
The Skylights' talented backcourt of Heny and Camille Gardner finished with a combined seven points on 1-13 shooting.
Northern finishes the season with a 23-10 overall record. While the end was disappointing, the Skylights have a bright future, with all but Valgardson returning for next season.
"I really feel like we grew all season," Erickson said. "We've gotten mentally tougher at the end and it's exciting because we have a good core of players
returning next year."
ROCKY MOUNTAIN 64, MSU-NORTHERN 62 (OT)
MSU-NORTHERN (9-6, 22-10)
DeLayne Johnston 5-17 1-3 11; Michele VanDyke 3-7 4-5
10; Jessi Reome 7-19 0-0 16; Jaci Heny 1-8 5-5 7;
Camille Gardner 0-5 0-0 0; Kristie Pullin 0-0 0-1 0;
Jena Heggem 1-1 0-0 2; Ashley Trulock 1-2 0-0 2; Megan
Valgardson 6-18 2-4 14. Totals: 24-77 12-18 62.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN COLLEGE (8-7, 12-17)
Alyssa Root 4-11 4-7 13; Sarah Bills 6-9 0-0 12;
Steph Neubauer 0-3 3-4 3; Jenny Balgua 6-13 6-11 20;
Rae Dawn Lei 1-9 2-2 5; Katherine Bitz 1-4 0-0 3;
Jamie Graham 1-2 0-0 3; Jeri Matter 0-1 0-0 0;
Gretchen Wall 2-6 1-2 5. Totals: 21-58 16-26 64.
Halftime score: RMC 33, MSU-N 28. 3-point goals:
MSU-N 2-17 (Reome 2-11, Heny 0-4, Gardner 0-2); RMC
6-16 (Root 1-2, Neubauer 0-1, Balgua 2-3, Lei 1-4,
Bitz 1-2, Graham 1-2). Rebounds: MSU-N 46 (Johnston
11, Valgardson 9); RMC 53 (Root 11, Bills 11).
Assists: MSU-N 14 (Heny 5); RMC 13 (Neubauer 5).
Turnovers: MSU-N 11, RMC 21. Team Fouls: MSU-N 22, RMC
18. Fouled out: Heny. Technicals: none