Havre Daily News sports editor
When it was finally time to step on the floor, the Montana State University-Northern Skylights showed that despite everything that has happened to them this year, they can still play some basketball.
In their first game since their van crashed in western Montana on Nov. 14 - causing four players to be hospitalized, two with season-ending injuries - the short-handed Skylights knocked off Rocky Mountain College in a nonconference game, 66-59 at the Wolf Point High School gymnasium in front of a huge crowd.
Despite playing without four players from its original roster, Northern was able to overcome foul trouble, fatigue, emotion and a frenzied RMC comeback.
“We were tired at the end of the game, and the kids are tired now,” first-year MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat said. “We played a great first half on both ends of the floor. We really came out rolling.
“But we knew Rocky would make a run and they did,” he added. “It was a real gut-check for our team down the stretch because we were tired, we were banged up and we were in foul trouble. I am so proud of this team for finding a way to win at the end of the game.”
The Skylights jumped out to a 10-1 lead and played solid basketball the rest of the first half, leading 34-20 by halftime. However, the Bears erased that deficit by the 10-minute mark of the second half, tying the game.
From there, the score stayed close to the finish. Northern was in danger of losing starters to fouls and the Skylights were being drastically outrebounded by the Bears. The Skylights remained composed and earned a much-needed victory in front of an appreciative Wolf Point crowd.
“It was a great thing for the kids to not only be playing again and be competitive, but the fact that we were able to win the game was a great feeling,” Mouat said.
“We have celebrated the things that were important to us this last couple of weeks, like the health and recovery of our players,” he added. “It was nice for these kids to celebrate winning a basketball game.”
Senior guard Jaci Heny carried the bulk of the Skylight scoring load, scoring a game-high 25 points and dishing out eight assists. Heny was instrumental in the Skylights' stretch run when they had to hold the Bears off.
“Jaci played a tremendous game,” Mouat said. “She did some outstanding things down the stretch for us.
“But anytime you have four players in double figures, you have to be happy,” he added. “I think that showed that we executed our offense really well.”
Forward DeLayne Johnston added an important 14 points and nine rebounds in the win, and Camille Gardner chipped in with 11 points. Former Chester standout Michele VanDyke also had a big game for the Skylights, scoring 11 points.
The Bears got a big night from leading scorer Alyssa Root, as she poured in 17 points. Alysa Brown added nine points, and former Havre High star Jeri Matter chipped in with eight points in the losing effort.
“Rocky is a very good team,” said Mouat, who is a former RMC assistant. “They have a lot of very talented players, and we feel very fortunate to have left Wolf Point with a win.”
Playing well and winning weren't the only things Mouat and the Skylights were grateful for on Saturday night. He said the fans in Wolf Point treated his team with respect and admiration, despite being a partisan RMC crowd because the Bears have former Wolf Point standouts Stephanie and Lori Jo Neubauer on their roster.
“The Wolf Point people were extremely good to us,” Mouat said.
“I also can't say enough about what everyone at Rocky has done for us,” he added. “Initially, we were going to split the gate with them, but they donated their share of it back to us. I can't stress enough what a class act coach (Brian) Henderson is and what a great friend he is.”
The win over the Bears upped Northern's record to 6-3 on the season. The Skylights will now have two days to prepare for their first home game since Nov. 5, when they host the University of Great Falls on Wednesday night.
“We're tired right now, and we know that it is going to be like this the rest of the season,” Mouat said. “But we are so excited about playing at home in front of our fans. It is going to be great to finally step out onto our own floor, and right now we can't wait.”
Wednesday night's game between MSU-N and UGF is scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m. at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse.
Skylights 66, Bears 59
MSU-N - Camille Gardner 11, Neesha Bravard 2, Jaci Heny 25, DeLayne Johnston 14, Jena Heggam 3, Michele VanDyke 11.
RMC - Stephanie Neubauer 7, Lori Jo Neubauer 8, Jeri Matter 8, Josie Evans 8, Alysa Brown 9, Megan Mohr 2.
3-point goals - MSU-N 2 (Gardner 1, Heggam 1); RMC 2 (S. Neubauer 1, Lori Jo Neubauer 1). Total fouls - MSU-N 16, RMC 23; Fouled out - None.