Havre Daily News sports editor
The Montana State University-Northern Lights' Frontier Conference basketball season has been one of amazing highs and deep lows.
Lately, the Lights have seen more lows than highs. That is until this weekend.
Northern swept visiting Lewis-Clark State and Westminster College this weekend at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse, with both wins coming on dramatic game-winning shots.
“This weekend was huge for us in a lot of different ways,” MSU-N head coach Shawn Huse said. “To beat two really good teams the way we did should give our team a tremendous amount of confidence. And this also puts us in pretty good shape in the conference standings.”
On Friday night against visiting LC State, the Lights saw their offensive woes continue. Northern is second to last in the conference in field goal shooting, and the Lights didn't fare much better against the Warriors, as they shot 40 percent from the field for the game.
But shots not falling didn't seem to matter, as the Lights held a five-point lead with three minutes to play.
The Warriors didn't go away, however, and point guard Jonathan Burnett appeared to snatch the game away from the Lights when he drilled two 3-pointers in the last 30 seconds of the game. The second trey gave the Warriors a 59-58 lead with just seven ticks left on the clock.
The Lights, who have been beaten in the final seconds of games several times this season, didn't panic. As time expired, senior Reid Stovall caught a pass from Leo Bullchild for a layup, giving the Lights a 60-59 win.
“The play was originally supposed to go to Marcus (Wilson),” Stovall said. “But they had it defended well. So Jordan (Matthews) set a great screen for me and Leo hit me with a perfect pass. I was surprised I was so open and, really, it was an easy shot.
“To beat a really good team like that at the end of the game is big for us,” Stovall added. “We let our lead slip away some and that has happened to us a couple of times this season. But tonight we proved that we could win a close game at the end, and that is something we needed to do.”
Indeed, the Lights did let a golden opportunity to put the Warriors away get away from them. Northern played well in the first half and led 29-24 at the break. The Lights held that lead all the way until Burnett's last trey put LC State in front.
Despite a still-struggling offense, Huse saw more positives than negatives.
“We still didn't shoot the ball particularly well,” Huse said. “But I thought we played tremendous defense for 40 minutes and we held a high-scoring team in check. That is a credit to how hard our kids work.”
Juniors Ronnie Simpson and Marcus Wilson were the only Lights in double figures, with 10 points apiece. Burnett's game-high 22 points paced the Warriors in the loss.
On Saturday night against No. 11 Westminster College, the Lights again struggled to find the basket, except for when they needed to most.
In overtime, Northern got a game-winning shot from junior transfer Brian Erickson to upset the Griffins, 65-63.
The Lights' field goal percentage improved some on Saturday night, but they still found themselves trailing the Griffins late in the second half. Then Simpson came off the bench and gave the Lights a lift, hitting a 3-pointer to give Northern the lead with six minutes left in regulation.
From there the teams traded baskets and free throws. Wilson tied the game at 56-56 with a pair of free throws with 30 seconds left, and the Griffins' Danny Reeder missed a last-second shot to win the game.
MSU-N got off to a good start in the extra period, racing out to a 62-56 lead. But Westminster didn't go away and, trailing by three points with seven seconds left, Reeder nailed a huge trey to tie the game at 63-63, setting up Erickson's last-second heroics.
“The way we won both of these game was huge for our confidence,” Wilson said. “We haven't been shooting the ball well lately, but we stuck together as a team and found a way to gut these two games out.
“Westminster is a good team and we have had a lot of trouble with them,” he added. “So we wanted to win this game pretty badly. We just kept playing hard and we gutted it out and it is big for us going into the postseason.”
Said Huse: “You can't feel any better for two guys like Brian and Reid. They are both guys that aren't our big scorers, and they are both team players. Everything for them is about the team. So for both of them to step up and make game-winning shots at the buzzer, it is just awesome.”
Simpson again paced the Lights with 17 points, including some timely shooting in both halves. Matthews scored 15 points and Wilson added 11.
“Ronnie Simpson really gave us a big lift in both games this weekend and we needed it,” Huse said. “I thought both he and Yanif (Ducreay) really stepped up and were forces offensively when we were struggling a little.”
The Griffins got 20 points from Reeder and 19 from Jared Ruiz.
“Both wins this weekend were really a credit to our kids and how hard they play,” Huse said. “They were really gutsy wins and I think we grew up a lot this weekend because of how we found a way to get it done against two quality teams.”
MSU-N (7-6, 18-11) will finish its regular season at home on Saturday night when the Lights host the University of Great Falls at 8 p.m.
Lights 60, Warriors 59
LCS - Jared Tikker 3-8 0-0 6, Chris Pitts 5-8 1-2 11, Keith Scarbrough 1-6 1-2 4, Jonathan Burnett 7-19 3-6 22, Spencer Bishop 1-3 0-0 3, Eric Durret 3-7 3-4 9, Charles Brooks 1-3 0-2 2, Steven Thompson 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 22-57 8-16 59.
MSU-N - Marcus Wilson 5-7 0-0 10, Yanif Ducreay 1-4 0-0 2, Jordan Matthews 1-7 3-4 6, Cory Brothers 3-8 3-4 9, Brian Erickson 1-2 0-0 2, Leo Bullchild 1-3 0-2 3. Reid Stovall 3-6 0-2 8, Cody Gillespie 1-2 6-8 8, Ronnie Simpson 5-9 1-1 12. Totals 21-49 15-23 60.
Halftime - MSU-N 29-24. 3-pointers - LCS 7-19 (Scarbrough 1-3, Burnett 5-9, Bishop 1-2), MSU-N 3-6 (Matthews 1-1, Bullchild 1-3, Siimpson 1-1). Rebounds - LCS 33 (Pitts 12), MSU-N 38 (Gillespie 7, Stovall 6). Total fouls - LCS 24, MSU-N 15. Fouled out - None. Technicals - LCS coach.
Lights 65, Griffins 63
WC - Nick Booth 5-8 0-1 10, Lance Barton 0-1 0-0 0, Brandon Sholly 2-6 0-0 5, Danny Reeder 6-13 6-9 20, Jared Ruiz 7-13 0-0 19, Rob Holcombe 3-5 0-1 6, Ryan Olson 1-3 0-0 3, Nick Buroker 0-2 0-0 0. Totals: 24-51 6-11. 63.
MSU-N - Marcus Wilson 3-8 5-6 11, Yanif Ducreay 3-7 2-2 8, Jordan Matthews 5-9 3-4 15, Ronnie Simpson 7-9 3-4 17, Cory Brothers 2-6 0-0 5, Brian Erickson 3-5 0-0 6, Leo Bullchild 1-1 0-0 3, Reid Stovall 0-1 0-0 0, Cody Gillespie 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 24-47 13-16. 65.
Halftime 32-25. 3-pointers - WC 9-25 (Sholly 1-5, Reeder 2-4, Ruiz 5-9, Olson 1-3), MSU-N 4-9 (Matthews 2-4, Brothers 1-2, Bullchild 1-1). Rebounds - WC 28 (Barton 7), MSU-N 27 (Wilson 7). Fouls - WC 19, MSU-N 18. Fouled out -Booth.