Havre Daily News sports editor
Despite a sub-.500 record in Frontier Conference play, the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team has a flare for rising to the challenge against nationally ranked teams.
With an upset of then No. 6 UM-Western already in hand, the Skylights (5-6, 15-8) welcome another top-ranked team to the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse tonight when they face the No. 6 Lewis-Clark State Warriors.
The Warriors (9-1, 21-3) are alone in first place in the conference standings, while the Skylights sit in fourth. An upset tonight would give Northern a leg up in the conference standings as they host Westminster College on Saturday night. The Griffins (4-6, 11-12) trail the Skylights by a full game and the two teams appear headed for a first-round showdown at next month's Frontier Conference tournament in Butte.
But, first-year MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat isn't looking that far ahead.
“We just want to play well this weekend,” Mouat said. “We have been up and down the last couple of weeks. At this point in the season we just need to get better every game.
“We have two very good teams coning in here this weekend,” he added. “And we're very excited to be playing them in front of our great fans. Hopefully we can play well and keep improving.”
The Skylights are coming off a split against Carroll College and Rocky Mountain College last weekend. Northern's offense continues to be its strong point, as Jaci Heny is the league's second-leading scorer at 19 points per game. And forward DeLayne Johnston is coming off four straight double-doubles.
With the offense clicking, the Skylights will turn to their defense this weekend. In the span of two days the Skylights will face formidable post players with LC State and the NAIA's leading scorer. So defense will be at a premuim.
“LC State has four great post players,” Mouat said. “Not only are their starters good, but they are very deep on the bench at that position. Defense and rebounding will be huge for us this weekend, as it has been all year.”
LC State's forward tandem of 6-3 Ashley Baker and 6-1 Aundrea Morrison combine to average 33 points and 20 rebounds per game. But what makes the Warriors so tough is that when Morrison and Baker sit down, they bring reserve forwards Cami Kalbfleisch and Katya Yancheva. Both players are just as capable of scoring and rebounding in double-digits, and despite not starting, Yancheva has been named Frontier Conference player of the week once this season.
When it comes to dominant forwards, things won't get any easier for the Skylights when they face Westminster on Saturday night. The Griffins boast the nation's top scorer in 6-1 Shalee Fackrell. The senior averages 30 points and nine rebounds per game and has dominated opponents all season long.
“Shalee changes how you prepare to play Westminster,” Mouat said. “She is that good of a player. There is a reason she is leading the country in scoring and she is doing it to everybody in our league.
“You just kind of have to resign yourself to the fact that she is going to score some points,” he added. “And hope that you can stop the rest of their team.”
That is something the Skylights didn't do in a four-point loss to the Griffins last month in Salt Lake City. Freshman guard Elisa Leader scored 24 points against Northern and she has played solidly ever since.
“I think Westminster is improved because of their upgrade in guard play,” Mouat said. “Elisa Leader has been playing well most of the conference season.
“They are also better because of the great job their coaches are doing,” he added. “JD (Gustin) and Bill (Rice) are two really good coaches and they are doing a great job with this team this season.”
Tonight's game between MSU-N and LC State will tip off at 6. Saturday night's game between Northern and Westminster will also get under way at 6.