Havre Daily News sports editor
Before Thursday night's opening round of the 2006 Frontier Conference Women's basketball tournament, Montana State University-Northern head basketball coach Chris Mouat was worried about his first-round opponent, the Westminster College Griffins.
It made no difference to Mouat that the Skylights had just thumped the Griffins two weeks ago in Havre. Westminster was a team on the rise, and the Griffins possess one of the best players in the nation in Shalee Fackrell.
On Thursday night at the MAC in Butte, Fackrell played like an all-american, but the Skylights proved to be the better team. Despite a 30-point, seven- rebound performance from Fackrell, the Skylights defeated Westminster, 78-63 to advance to tonight's semifinals.
“It was a tough game and we had a battle on our hands,” Mouat said. “We didn't play very well in the first half. We didn't shoot the ball well at all.
“And Shalee got her 30 points,” he added. “But I am really proud of our kids because they played so hard and so well in the second half. We shot the ball much better and we played really solid defense.”
The Skylights trailed by one point, 34-33 at halftime, and Fackrell scored 17 of her game-high 30 points in the first 20 minutes.
But Northern came out determined in the second half and ripped off 12 unanswered points midway through the half to take the lead away from the Griffins. From there the Skylights attacked the basket and, did what they do best, make free throws down the stretch.
“It was tough, hard-fought game and we knew it would be,” Mouat said. “We have a lot of respect for Westminster and what they have done this season. And we are glad to see Shalee go. She is a tremendous player and she has been an absolute force at this level. And we're glad we don't have to face her anymore.
“This is a great win for us,” Mouat added. “We feel really good about beating a quality team like Westminster and we're happy we're moving on.”
DeLayne Johnston countered Fackrell's performance with a stellar one of her own. The 6-0 junior paced the Skylights with 22 points and nine rebounds. Jaci Heny also had a big night, scoring 17 points and pulling down 10 boards from her guard position.
The Skylights also got a big boost from Jena Heggem. The junior from Winifred poured in 14 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Michele VanDyke added 15 points and seven rebounds. As a team the Skylights outrebounded the Griffins 39-31, and Northern made 20-of 24 foul shots.
“DeLayne was huge for us tonight,” Mouat said. “It isn't easy for her to be offensive because she is guarding one of the best players in the nation. But she played great tonight. And Jena Heggem is another one who just stepped it up big for us.”
Northern will now face top-seeded UM-Western in the semfinals tonight. But with the win, Mouat now believes that the No. 24 Skylights have punched their ticket to the NAIA national tournament.
“I think we are safely in now,” Mouat said. “Our goal is still to try and win this tournament and play as well as we can against Western.
“That game is going to be a tough one for us,” he added. “They are a great team and we're a little tired right now. But I think we have definitely shown that we deserve to be in the national tournament after this win tonight.”
Tonight's Frontier Conference semifinal between MSU-N and UM-Western will tip off at 6 p.m. at the MAC in Butte. The winner will advance to Saturday night's championship game against either Lewis-Clark State or Carroll College.
Skylights 78, Griffins 63
WC - Jordan Eckman 2-5 0-0 4, Janea Hirschi 1-5 0-0 2, Shalee Fackrell 11-19 8-9 30, Shannon Evans 3-10 4-5 11, Elisa Leader 5-12 2-2 14, Alicia Haberle 1-5, 0-2 2. Totals: 23-58 14-16 63.
MSU-N - DeLayne Johnston 10-22 2-2 22, Jena Heggem 3-6 6-7 14, Michele VanDyke 6-10 3-5 15, Camille Gardner 2-6 0-0 4, Jaci Heny 3-7 9-10 17, Ashley Trulock 3-7 0-0 6. Totals: 27-58 20-24 78.
Halftime - WC 34, MSU-N 33; 3-pointers - WC 3-21 (Evans 1, Leader 2), MSU-N 4-9 (Heggem 2, Heny 2); Rebounds - WC 31 (Fackrell 8), MSU-N 39 (Johnston 9); Total fouls - WC 20, MSU-N 13; Fouled out - None.