Havre Daily News sports editor
The Montana State University-Northern Skylights' run to the 2006 NAIA national women's basketball tournament has been widely publicized and highly talked about.
Today, at 3 p.m. in Jackson, Tenn., all the talk and all the documentation will get thrown out the window when the No. 24 Skylights square off against the No. 13 Oklahoma Christian Eagles in the tournament's opening round.
Today's game is the first time the Skylights have played in a national tournament game since 2001. The Eagles are making their third straight appearance in the big dance.
Like the Skylights, the third-seeded Eagles are an at-large team after finishing second in both the Sooner Athletic Conference standings and at the SAC tournament.
“They are going to be a very tough matchup for us,” MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat said. “All five of their starters average in double figures and they are very gifted athletically. This will be a very tough game for us to win.”
Indeed, the highly-talented Eagles have two returning All-Americans and interestingly, neither of them lead the team in any statistical categories.
Senior point guard Lauren Decker is a two-time NAIA All-American who averages 13 points and four assists per game. Decker also shoots the ball extremely well from the outside.
Fellow senior Tasha Turney is another returning All-American and she is averaging 13.6 points per outing.
Turney and Decker give the Eagles a pair of poised and athletic players who have a ton of national tournament experience under their belts.
The Eagles leading scorer is 5-11 junior Rachel Martin. Despite starting at the forward position, Martin was the SAC's leading 3-point shooter this season. Martin is connecting on 41 percent of her 3-point attempts en route to averaging 16.1 points per game. Junior forward Carlissa Plowden (5-10) and junior center Katie Fariss (6-1) round out the Eagles' starting five, and both players also average double digits in scoring.
“They have five players who can really score the basketball and they do it in a number of ways,” Mouat said. “But I think they are most dangerous when they are on the run and when they get open shots from the outside.”
The Eagles have had a tremendous season in 2005-2006 losing just four games in the always-tough SAC. Three of those losses came at the hands of the NAIA's No. 3-ranked team in Oklahoma City College. Overall, the Eagles finished the year at 19-9 and the NAIA tournament committee showed them a lot of respect by giving them a No. 3 seed in the tournament, despite not reaching the coveted 20-win plateau.
As tough as the Skylights' first-round opponent sounds, MSU-N won't be an easy out today.
Northern has one of the most prolific offenses in the tournament and one of the nation's leading scorers in senior Jaci Heny (20.8 ppg). Like OCU, the Skylights have a loaded starting lineup that features four double-digit scorers. Junior DeLayne Johnston averages 14 points and seven rebounds per game and fellow forward Michele VanDyke comes in averaging 13 points and six boards. The Skylights also have one of the best point guards in the tournament in senior Camille Gardner. The 5-5 Gardner averages 11.9 points and five assists per game. Junior guard Jena Heggem (8.9 ppg) rounds out the MSU-N starting lineup.
“We know they are a good team,” Heggem said of the Eagles. “But I think we are very similar to them. We both have good offenses and really good shooting guards. And we both have outstanding post players who can rebound, defend and shoot the ball well.”
When it comes to this level of basketball, it doesn't matter how a team wins, it only matters that it does. But despite being a first-year head coach, Mouat knows there is much more to it than that. Normally, in the postseason, games are close throughout, and it comes down to which team flinches first and which one makes the fewest mistakes.
“I think the key for us is on the defensive end of the floor and rebounding,” Mouat said. “It has been that way all season for us and we are going up against another very athletic team. So we will really have to buckle down on the defensive end of the floor and we can't afford to get outrebounded.
“But I feel good about our chances because of our guard play and because of our experience,” he added. “We don't have any players who have been to this tournament before, but we play in one of the best conference's in the nation and we have been in and won some very big games this season.”
And with all the Skylights (19-9) have gone through this season: the auto accident, the loss of key players to injury, and all the great wins and close losses this season, one could easily assume that today's game against Oklahoma Christian is just icing on the cake. But don't tell any of the players that.
“We definitely feel like getting here is a great reward for what we have gone through this year and for all of the hard work,” Heny said. “But we also feel like we deserve to be in this tournament and we earned our way in.”
Said Gardner: “We're not going into this tournament feeling like we are just glad to be here. We definitely want to win and see how far we can go. We have a very good team and I think we have proved on the court that when we play well, we are capable of playing with anybody.”
Today's NAIA national tournament first-round game between MSU-N and Oklahoma Christian will tip off at 3 p.m. at the Oman Arena in Jackson, Tenn. The game can be heard locally on 92.5 FM KPQX.