Havre Daily News sports editor
Following Saturday night's 76-58 senior night win over the University of Great Falls, the talk among the Montana State University-Northern Skylights immediately turned to the postseason.
On the final night of the regular season, the final home game of the year, and the final time that MSU-N guards Jaci Heny and Camille Gardner played in front of Havre fans, the Skylights put on a show against the young Argos.
And now MSU-N storms into the Frontier Conference tournament, and possibly the NAIA national tournament, on a three-game winning streak.
Traditionally, no team that is ranked in the final NAIA Top 25 regular-season poll has missed out on the national tournament. But following Saturday night's win over UGF, Gardner insisted that the No. 24 Skylights were not trying to beat the Argos with that in mind.
“We weren't focused on anything but playing well in this game,” Gardner said. “We wanted to make sure we were playing well going into the conference tournament, and we wanted to make sure that we took care of business against UGF, especially because they beat us in Great Falls.
“We have heard that we could go to the national tournament,” she added. “But now our focus is going to be on the conference tournament, and taking care of business there.”
The final win of the regular season didn't come easy for the Skylights, but Heny and Gardner made it look that way for most of the game. Heny's last game in the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse was nothing short of scintillating. She scored a game-high 34 points, including three 3-pointers. In her last three games, Heny has scored a whopping 98 points, and on Saturday night, she became the first Skylight to average 20 points per game for a season.
Gardner had a quiet night offensively, but, as she has done all season, she ran the show to perfection.
“It has been a lot of fun and a great experience playing in front of our fans over the last two years,” Gardner said. “Especially after everything that has happened to our team. We have received so much support from the fans and the community. This is a special place to play and I'm really going to miss it.”
The Skylights didn't get off to the greatest of starts against the Argos, but Northern played just well enough to grab a comfortable 37-29 halftime lead. UGF stayed strong for the first five minutes of the second half, but eventually Heny, Gardner and the Skylights' post play wore the Argos down.
“We didn't play that well in the first half,” MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat said. “But we picked it up on both ends of the floor in the second half and we got the ball inside. I was really proud of the play we got from Mandee Carroll and Ashley Trulock off the bench.
“And Jaci and Camille really led us home, as they always do,” he added. “Jaci went out the only way she knows how. She had a really big game once again for us. And Camille did an incredible job shutting down Laura Keaster, who is one of the top players in our league.”
Gardner's defense on Keaster, a former Skylight, forced her to have a miserable night. The sophomore, who had been averaging 19 points in two games against MSU-N this season, scored a mere four points and fouled out with six minutes left in the contest.
UGF got 14 points from Jessica Smith and 13 from Meghan Schwantes.
The Skylights also established a strong inside presence against UGF. Northern got 14 points and nine rebounds from DeLayne Johnston, and Trulock came off the bench to score 10 points and grab seven boards.
“I thought going inside was key,” Mouat said. “UGF is a tough matchup for us. So to play as well as we did in the paint was big tonight and we feel really good about how we played, especially in the second half.”
The win over UGF got MSU-N to 8-6 in league play and 18-8 overall. The Skylights will enter the conference tournament in Butte as the No. 4 seed and they will face Westminster College in the opening round.
Win or lose, Northern appears headed to the NAIA tournament in two weeks in Jackson, Tenn., But, unless they win the conference championship this weekend, they won't know for sure until next Monday.
“It looks good right now but we can't worry about that,” Mouat said. “We're playing well and we need to continue that. Every team's goal is to win the conference tournament and we're no different. We want to go to Butte and take care of business down there.”
The Skylights' first-round game against Westminster will be at 6 p.m. Thursday at the MAC in Butte. The Frontier Conference tournament gets under way on Wednesday afternoon.
Skylights 76, Argos 58
UGF - Jessica Smith 6-13 2-6 14, Meghan Schwantes 6-14 1-2 13, Laura Keaster 2-9 0-0 4, Angie Clift 1-5 0-0 2, Melanie Green 4-7 0-0 10, Mindy Houx 3-4 0-0 6, Monica Thackeray 0-0 2-2 2, Siobhan Donnelly 3-6 0-0 7. Totals: 25-58 5-10. 58
MSU-N - DeLayne Johnston 5-11 4-5 14, Jena Heggem 2-3 0-0 5, Michele VanDyke 3-8 2-2 8, Camille Gardner 2-7 1-2 5, Jaci Heny 10-18 11-13 34, Ashley Trulock 5-11 0-0 10. Totals: 27-58 18-22. 76
Halftime: MSUN 37-29. 3-pointers - UGF 3-12 (Green 2-3, Donnelly 1-1), MSU-N 4-7 (Heggem 1-1, Heny 3-6). Rebounds - UGF 37 (Three tied with 6), MSU-N 33 (Johnston 9). Fouls - UGF 17, MSU-N 12. Fouled out - Keaster.