George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Every NAIA basketball team schedules a game that would seem to most people, unwinnable. It is that money game. That game where you visit a Division I-A or DII opponent early in this season, and you get paid to do it. The Montana State University- Northern men’s basketball team has three such games on its schedule this season. Northern has trips to Colorado State and Northern Arizona upcoming. But tonight’s visit to Missoula and the University of Montana is much more than a money game for the Lights. It is about respect and having one chance to take on Montana’s elite basketball programs. “We always want to play Montana or Montana State if we can,” MSU-N head coach Shawn Huse said. “This is a chance for our team to take a shot at playing one of our great in-state DI opponents and we’re thankful to Wayne (Tinkle) for the opportunity to go in there and play them.” Tonight, when the Lights invade Dahlberg Arena, it will be the seasonopener for a Montana team fresh off two straight Big Sky championships, two straight appearances in the NCAA tournament, including a win over Nevada in the opening round of the 2006 tourney in Salt Lake City as well as the hiring of new head coach Wayne Tinkle. Tinkle took over for Larry Krystowiak, who left the UM program for an assistant coaches position with the Milwaukee Bucks after last season. Tinkle has been an assistant coach at UM for many years, and had served with Brad Huse the last three seasons before Huse left last spring to take the helm at MSU in Bozeman. The Griz return a solid core of Division I talent led by Big Sky Player of the Year candidate Andrew Strait. The 6-9 Strait is the leading returning scorer for UM, and he isn’t alone when it comes to talent. The Grizzlies also have 6-8 swingman Jordan Hasquet back for his junior season as well as 6-6 forward Austin Swift. Montana is deep on the front line as well, bringing quality players like Kyle Sharp and Mike Chavez off the bench. “I think we realize that their overall size and athleticism is the biggest difference,” Huse said. “They are very big and very strong in the paint and that is where the toughest matchups are for us.” But Montana also possesses a strong back court paced by point guard Bryan Ellis and shooting guard Matt Martin. And Matt Dloughy is one of the most athletic and talented players in all of the Big Sky Conference.
Still, Montana’s star-studded cast isn’t so good that the Grizzlies can afford to take MSU-N lightly. In an exhibition game last weekend, Montana struggled to a 79-72 win over Frontier Conference favorite Rocky Mountain College. In a battle of Bears and Grizzlies, RMC was up seven points at the half, and still had a slim lead with five minutes left in the game. “I truly believe we can go in there in do some good things,” Huse said. “But the most important things is that we play well and we learn a lot. “Win or lose, you can learn from every game,” he added. “It doesn’t matter who or where your playing, you can always take something positive away from every game.” But make no mistake, the Lights (2- 2) are going into Missoula with the mindset of trying to knock off Montana’s best basketball program. Northern started the season sluggishly with two losses to Canadian schools two weeks ago. But this past weekend, the Lights rebounded to blow out Dickinson State and edge past a very good Minot State team. In both games, Northern’s depth played a huge role. Starters Cory Brothers and Drew Pettersen were sharp last Friday against DSU, and Delvaughn Tinned and Ronny Simpson combined to score 44 points in the win over Minot on Saturday. Still, as good as Northern played last weekend, Huse is well aware of how difficult tonight’s task is. “They are a great team and they have a great thing going in Missoula right now,” Huse said. “They have tremendous talent and size and they can score the ball from all over the place. We fully realize how difficult this game is going to be. “But we also understand that this is a great preparation game for us in the long run,” he added. “Their size and athleticism prepares us for conference time. If your not strong and fundamental against UM your for sure going to pay the price. And the same goes for our league, so this will be a great opportunity for our kids to really get a taste of what playing in a tough, physical basketball game is all about. And hopefully, we’ll go in there and play well. That is what I want to see form us most. Just to play good, sound basketball for 40 minutes.” MSU-N’s road trip won’t end in Missoula either. The Lights will return to Havre late tonight, only to leave again 12 hours later and head to North Dakota. On Sunday night, Northern will be at Dickinson for a rematch with the Blue Hawks, and the Lights will visit Minot State on Monday night. Tonight’s game between Montana and MSU-N will only count for the Grizzlies. It is an exhibition game for MSU-N. The game will tip off at 7 at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula.