Havre Daily News sports editor
When it comes to postseason basketball, more times than not, seeding means very little. It doesn't matter if its the NAIA or NCAA tournament.
On Wednesday afternoon at the Oman Arena in Jackson, Tenn., the Montana State University-Northern Skylights proved that theory correct as the sixth-seeded Skylights opened their NAIA women's national tournament in rousing fashion by crushing the third-seeded Oklahoma Christian Eagles 82-68. The win puts the No. 24 Skylights (20-9) into the NAIA Sweet 16 on Friday afternoon.
Northern defeated the No. 13 Eagles (18-10) with a blend of torrid outside shooting from Jaci Heny, Camille Gardner and Jena Heggem, and a strong inside game from both DeLayne Johnston and Ashley Trulock.
The Skylights broke open a 9-9 tie with three first-half 3-pointers from Camille Gardner en route to a commanding 53-31 halftime lead.
The 3-point shot neutralized the Eagles the entire game as the Skylights made 9-of-14 shots from beyond the arc. That performance offset a game-high 25 turnovers by MSU-N.
“I just had a really good feeling going into the game,” MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat said. “We looked really sharp in practice this week and the kids came out and played really well in the first half.”
The Eagles made a run at the Skylights in the second half, and twice they shaved the lead to nine points. But Heny knocked in four treys on her way to a game-high 27 points, and the Skylights outrebounded the taller Eagles 45-31. Both were huge factors in the Skylights' ability to hold off Oklahoma Christian in the second half.
“It looks like we blew them out, but in reality we really had to hang on late in the game,” Mouat said. “They are a great team, not a good team. And with 13 minutes left in the game, every one of our post players had four fouls.
“So we really did have to hold on at the end,” he added. “But give our kids a lot of credit. They were poised and they played with a lot of confidence and they got the job done.”
Heny and Gardner combined to score 46 points, and together they made seven threes. Gardner scored 19 points and also dropped in seven assists.
In the paint, the Skylights were also tough despite foul trouble. Junior DeLayne Johnston poured in 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for her 11th double-double of the season. Trulock added nine points and 10 rebounds off the bench. As a team, Northern shot 55 percent from the floor and an astounding 64 percent from the 3-point-line.
Conversely, the Eagles shot a dismal 36 percent (26-72) from the field and they made just 4-of-20 3-pointers. Senior All-American Lauren Decker paced Oklahoma Christian with 24 points and leading scorer Rachel Martin chipped in with 16 points. Tasha Turney was the only other Eagle to reach double figures with 13 points.
“I thought the kids did a great job defensively,” Mouat said. “They have a lot of great athletes and great scorers and our kids did a really good job of keeping them in check.”
In other first-round action involving Frontier Conference teams, conference champion UM-Western breezed past William Carey University, 67-51. Both Carroll College and Lewis-Clark State play opening round games today.
“It's an amazing feeling right now and our kids are ecstatic,” Mouat said. “It was a lot of fun today. We had the other Frontier schools in the stands pulling for us and it was just a lot of fun to go out and play as well as we did.
“Now we are back to square one, however,” he added. “We have to put the emotions of this win behind us and get ready to play another very good team on Friday.”
The Skylights' second-round opponent will be second-seeded The Master's College of California. Master's (26-7) defeated Auburn-Montogmery University on Wednesday night 65-50. The game between MSU-N and Master's will tip off at 2:30 p.m. Friday.
Skylights 82, Eagles 68
OC - Lauren Decker 10-20 4-6 24, LaToisha Ware 1-3 0-0 3, Tasha Turney 4-9 5-5 13, Carlissa Plowden 3-10 0-3 6, Rachel Martin 6-14 2-3 16, Katie Fariss 2-13 0-0 6. Totals: 26-72 12-19 68.
MSU-N - Camille Gardner 4-10 8-8 19, Jaci Heny 8-15 7-10 27, DeLayne Johnston 7-14 1-2 15, Jena Heggem 2-2 0-0 6, Michele VanDyke 3-5 0-1 6, Ashley Trulock 4-5 1-2 9. Totals: 28-51 17-23 82.
Halftime - MSU-N 53, OC 31. 3-pointers - MSU-N 9-14 (Heggem 2, Heny 4, Gardner 3), OC 4-20 (Martin 2, Fariss 2). Rebounds - MSU-N 45 (Johnston 1), OC 31 (Plowden 8). Total fouls - MSU-N 17, OC 21. Fouled out - Martin, Johnston, VanDyke, Trulock.