Havre Daily News sports editor
The talk surrounding the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team is that the No. 24 Skylights are already in the NAIA national tournament.
Historically, no team that is ranked No. 25 or better in the final NAIA regular season poll has been left out of the 32-team field. But the only way the Skylights and first-year head coach Chris Mouat can punch a guaranteed ticket to Jackson, Tenn., is by winning the 2006 Frontier Conference tournament. Anything less than a conference championship and the Skylights (8-6, 18-8) won't know if they are headed to the big dance until Monday afternoon.
“All indications are that we are going,” Mouat said. “But right now our focus is on the Frontier Tournament and playing well in Butte this weekend. We'll worry about the rest when it is over.”
Northern's quest for a conference championship begins tonight at 6 at the MAC in Butte where the Skylights face fifth-seeded Westminster College (7-7, 14-3). The two teams split during the regular season, with each squad winning on its own home floor.
Westminster proved to be the league's most improved team this season. The Griffins finished above .500 overall and played every league opponent extremely tough. That was evident in MSU-N's visit to Salt Lake City back in January, where the Griffins knocked off the Skylights 78-74.
“I think we have the toughest first-round game in the tournament,” Mouat said. “The coaches have done a great job down there this season and they are a very talented team. And unlike what most people think, they are not just a one-player team either.”
That one player Mouat refers to is 6-1 senior Shalee Fackrell. The Southern Utah transfer has led all of the NAIA in scoring from start to finish this season, and heading into the tournament, she is averaging 31 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Fackrell would be a lock for conference and NAIA player of the year if it weren't for the stellar play of MSU-N senior Jaci Heny. Heny is averaging 21 points per game, and she is second in the nation in assists, seventh in steals, and third in free-throw percentage.
“Shalee is a great player and a great talent,” Mouat said. “She obviously has our full attention.
“But they also have good guards,” he added. “They are young, but they play well and they can all shoot the basketball. But I do think because of our experience at the guard play with Jaci and Camille (Gardner), we do have an advantage there.”
While the Skylights might have an at-large berth in the NAIA tournament sewn up, so to do several other teams in the conference. UM-Western is ranked ninth in the NAIA and Lewis-Clark State is No. 10. Carroll College, which finished third in the league, is also sitting at No. 12.
That makes this week's tourney extremely interesting, because the top four teams all appear headed to the NAIA tournament no matter what they do in Butte. That fact also makes a team like Westminster a very dangerous opponent.
“Westminster is fully capable of beating us,” Mouat said. “And we know that. They are a team who probably has to win the tournament in order to move on and sometimes that can cause a team to play very loose and be relaxed out there.
“We are going to have to be very sharp and be on our toes,” he added. “We have to be ready to play 40 minutes of really sound basketball, especially on defense.”
Of course, it won't hurt that the Skylight are already playing extremely well coming into tonight's game. Northern has reeled off three straight convincing wins over the last two weeks, including a 20-point drubbing of Westminster two weeks ago in Havre.
During the winning streak, Heny averaged nearly 30 points per game. Gardner and DeLayne Johnston are also averaging in double digits.
“We're playing well right now and all that matters is continuing to progress,” Mouat said. “We're only focused on beating Westminster and moving on to the next round. In a tournament scenario, you really do have to take it one game at a time.”
If Northern gets past Westminster the Skylights will face top-seeded UM-Western in the semifinals Friday night. The Bulldogs edged Montana Tech, 76-71 on Wednesday night. In other first-round action Wednesday afternoon, LC State crushed the University of Great Falls, 83-68. The Warriors will face the winner of this afternoon's first-round game between Carroll and Rocky Mountain College.
The 2005 Women's Frontier Conference tournament continues through Saturday night in Butte with the championship game scheduled for 6 p.m.