Havre Daily News sports editor
It was certainly an emotional first weekend of Frontier Conference basketball in Havre for both the Montana State University-Northern men's and women's teams.
Now, the Lights and Skylights will have to put the buzzer-beaters and upsets of the past weekend behind them as they embark on their longest road trip of the season.
That trip starts tonight when both teams square off against Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Both teams will also play at Lewis-Clark State on Saturday night.
The MSU-N Lights (14-6, 3-1) come into tonight's game fresh off an upset of then No. 2 Carroll College on Saturday in Havre. The win pushed the Lights into the NAIA Top 25 for the first time all season, as they are ranked No. 24 in the latest poll. Northern is in a three-way tie with Carroll and Rocky Mountain College for first place in the conference standings.
Despite their stunning upset of the highly touted Saints, MSU-N head coach Shawn Huse was immediately focused on this weekend.
“This is a tough road trip,” Huse said. “Westminster is a very good team and they are very tough on their home floor. Plus, it is a short turnaround for us.”
The Griffins (11-5, 1-2) were picked by many to challenge Carroll for the conference championship this season. But they are off to a slow start in league play, having dropped two of their first three conference games. This week they dropped out of the NAIA poll for the first time all season, after a Saturday night loss at home to LC State. A loss at home to Northern would put them in a hole that may be difficult to get out of.
The sluggish start to Westminster's conference season is not for lack of talent on the Griffins' roster. Senior Jared Ruiz is third in the conference in scoring (17.6 ppg) and third in 3-point field goal percentage. Ruiz is just ahead of Northern senior Jordan Matthews, a Salt Lake native, who comes home tonight averaging 16.9 points per game.
Junior Nick Booth is also a top scorer in the conference, averaging 16.3 points per outing, and sophomore point guard Danny Reeder averages 13.9 points per game and is second in the league in assists. Reeder is ranked just ahead of Northern point guard Brian Erickson, another Salt Lake native.
After a Friday spent traveling, the Lights will head to Lewiston, Idaho, for a game with one of the surprise teams in the league, the LC State Warriors. LC State is 1-2 in conference play, but they have a stellar 13-4 overall record. Saturday's game is another road test that Huse knows will be tough.
“Lewis-Clark State is a lot like Westminster in that they are very tough to beat at home,” Huse said. “This will be a very tough road trip for us.”
The Warriors are young but very athletic, led by 6-9 junior Chris Pitts, who is one of the top rebounders in the league. Junior guard Eric Durett is the Warriors' top scorer at 14.0 points per game.
The weekend will be equally challenging for the No. 24 MSU-N Skylights. The Skylights are coming off two grueling games at home that included a win over RMC and a last-second loss to Carroll College.
“We're tired and we're banged up right now,” MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat said. “But this team has been resilient all year and I expect that we will go down there and play very well.”
In fact, the Skylights are a very road-savvy team, having lost just one game away from Havre all season. Tonight's foray into Salt Lake City will be tough, however, as Northern faces the league's most improved team in Westminster (1-2, 8-8), and its top player in 6-1 senior Shalee Fackrell.
“Westminster is so improved and they are playing very well right now,” Mouat said. “They have a great player in Shalee Fackrell and she will be a focal point for us defensively. But I think the fact that they have upgraded their guard play is what makes them so improved this season.”
Fackrell is not only leading the Frontier Conference in scoring, but the entire NAIA. The senior forward is averaging a shade over 30 points per game, and she is coming off a 40-point explosion in the Griffins' 81-79 loss to LC State last Saturday. She is also second in the league in rebounding at 10.2 boards per game.
Tonight's game is the third straight for the Skylights in which their opponent has ties to Havre. The Griffins assistant coach is former Havre High standout Bill Rice. Rice also coached at HHS two years ago.
On Saturday night the Skylights will have their hands full with No. 13 LC State. The Warriors are 3-0 in conference play and 15-2 overall. Next to Fackrell, the Warriors have the most productive forwards in the league, led by 6-3 junior Ashley Baker. Baker is averaging 18.4 points per game, which is just behind Northern senior Jaci Heny (19.0 ppg). Baker also leads the league in rebounding, pulling down 11.2 boards per game. Senior Andrea Morrison (6-0) is fourth in the league in scoring at 17.8 points per game and third in rebounding with 10.6 rebounds per contest.
“Obviously LC State has two very good post players,” Mouat said. “And they are a very tough team at home. They rarely lose on their home floor, so we'll have our work cut out for us.”
Indeed, if the Skylights are to have success tonight, or in Idaho, or both, they will have to get a great defensive performance from forwards DeLayne Johnston and Michele VanDyke, as well as more solid contributions from Ashley Trulock off the bench. That means the trio will have to stay out of foul trouble, which is something they didn't do against Rocky and Carroll.
“Defense is the key to our success this weekend,” Mouat said. “We are going up against two teams that have tremendous post players, so staying out of foul trouble will imperative.”
Tonight's games between MSU-N and Westminster in Salt Lake City get under way with the women at 6, and the men at 8. On Saturday, the MSU-N women will face LC State at 6 p.m. and the men's game will get under way at 8 p.m.