Havre Daily News sports editor
To say the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team is on a hot streak right now would be terribly understating the obvious. Northern took a five-game winning streak into a pair of difficult games in Hawaii last weekend, and the streak is still intact, as they prepare to open Frontier Conference play tonight in Dillon.
The Skylights (10-2) will take on UM-Western tonight at 6 and they will also visit Montana Tech in Butte on Saturday night.
Heading into last weekend's tournament in Honolulu, the Skylights weren't given much of a chance to return to Havre with two wins. But, Northern found away to beat Division II North Georgia 80-72 and then outlasted high-scoring Olivet Nazarene, 109-108.
North Georgia was ranked in the Division II top 25 and Olivet was one of the highest scoring teams in NAIA women's basketball this season. So it was a bit of stretch for the short-handed Skylights to get both games. However, senior Jaci Heny had a monster tournament, scoring 29 points against North Georgia and 30 against Olivet. In the wild affair against Olivet, Michele VanDyke and DeLayne Johnston also poured in 23 points apiece.
Johnston, like Heny, had a big weekend, scoring 38 points and pulling down 15 rebounds.
The triumphs in Hawaii mean the No. 23 Skylights enter tonight's game with No. 9 UM-Western without having tasted defeat since they lost an exhibition game at Portland State in early November.
But the Bulldogs will present a whole different challenge, as will the rest of the Frontier schedule. UM-Western was predicted to battle Carroll College and Lewis-Clark State for the conference championship, and so far all three teams have lived up to the billing.
The Bulldogs enter conference play with a 13-2 overall record. As good as Western was last year, the addition of Weber State transfer Becky O'Neil has bolstered the Bulldog lineup that much more.
The 6-1 O'Neil has thrived in the paint for Western this year, averaging 16 points and nine rebounds per game. She, along with 6-1 junior Katherine Sunwall, give the Bulldogs one of the strongest front lines in all of NAIA women's basketball.
Western isn't just an outside team. The Bulldogs also have one of the most dangerous guards in the conference in Great Falls native Megan Schmitz. The junior is averaging 15 points per game, and she is a dangerous threat from the 3-point line.
Northern post players like Johnston, VanDyke and Ashley Trulock will have their hands full with Western's front line tonight, and they will again on Saturday when they visit Montana Tech. The Orediggers might have a less-than-impressive 4-11 record this season, but one thing they have going for them is size.
Tech is led by 6-1 Johanna Fryer and 6-0 Marcie Alzheimer. The Orediggers also get help from 5-9 Stephanie Baertsch. Still, the Skylights' fast-pace attack should offset the Orediggers' inside presence.
Heny's numbers continue to rise, and she is now averaging more than 20 points per game. Fellow senior guard Camille Gardner also leads the team in assists and she is scoring in double figures, just like Johnston and VanDyke.
The MSU-N men will have somewhat of an opposite weekend than their female counterparts. The Lights (11-5) stumbled a bit in their final nonconference game, barely beating the University of Lethbridge in Havre last Saturday.
However, tonight in Dillon, Northern should have less of a difficult task than the MSU-N women. The UM-Western Bulldogs (6-10) have struggled this season against much of the same competition the Lights have faced.
The Bulldogs and veteran head coach Mick Durham lost three seniors from last year's successful team, including the conference's leading scorer, Matt Ludke.
Still, Western is very talented with the likes of Ty Palmer and Jeff Feenstra back this season as well as former MSU-N and Chester High School standout Jeff Graham. Western is also getting solid contributions from Rocky Mountain College transfer Wes Morales and true freshman Charlie Cox.
Palmer leads the team in scoring at 19 points per game. Cox is having a tremendous freshman campaign, averaging 15 points per game and five assists.
On Saturday night, the Lights will travel to Butte to take on Montana Tech. Like Western, Tech (8-6) has faced many of the same teams played by the Lights, but has fared well during the nonconference season.
Tech's size will also play a factor in the matchup. The Orediggers dress six players over 6-5 and they are paced by 6-11 center TJ Scarborough. He will be a load for Lights center Yanif Ducreay to handle. Tech also gets good scoring production from 6-5 swingman Maurice Williams and 6-1 guard Luke Harman.
As the Frontier season begins, the Lights have three players averaging in double figures, led by senior Jordan Matthews (18 ppg). Cory Brothers and Ronnie Simpson are also averaging double digits.
Tonight's games in Dillon between MSU-N and UM-Western begin at 6 with the women's game. The men will play at 8. Tipoff for both games in Butte on Saturday night are scheduled for the same times.