Havre Daily News sports editor
BUTTE - All season long, the Montana State University-Northern Skylights have played shorthanded. Their starters have played a ton of minutes, and no matter how well-conditioned and resilient they are, the Skylights have had an excuse to be a tired basketball team.
On Friday night in the semifinals of the Frontier Conference women's basketball tournament in Butte, Northern clearly looked tired in its heartbreaking 74-71 loss to the UM-Western Bulldogs. The loss ended MSU-N's chances of earning an automatic bid to the NAIA national tournament.
But the No. 24 Skylights should be a lock to earn a spot in the field of 32. And even though MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat knows his team was fatigued against the Bulldogs, he wasn't making any excuses on Friday night.
“There is no doubt we were tired. The game against Westminster the night before really took its toll on us physically,” he said. “But this is the semifinals of the conference tournament and it doesn't matter how tired you are. We're not going to use that as a crutch. Western was three points better than us tonight, and you have to give them all the credit for that.”
The Bulldogs, who went on to defeat Carroll College in Saturday night's championship game, looked like the fresher team right from the jump.
Despite the fact that Northern raced out to an 8-2 lead, the Bulldogs were quick to take command of the game. Western's Billie Suhr knocked down a slew of 3-pointers on her way to 19 first-half points, and in the process gave Western a double-digit lead midway through the first half.
The Skylights, however, have been a resilient team all season long, and they showed that toughness late in the first half.
Trailing 25-13, MSU-N ripped off 12 unanswered points to tie the game at 25-25. From there, the two teams battled until Western was able to nudge ahead, 39-36 at halftime.
“That is what I love about our team,” Mouat said. “Western and Billie Suhr were shooting the lights out early. We could have folded right there, but the girls fought hard to erase that lead, and by halftime it was a game again.”
The second half turned out to be almost a mirror image of the first. Only this time, Western pulled away by going inside to star forwards Katherine Sunwall and Becky O'Neil. By taking command of the paint, the Bulldogs built a comfortable 64-53 lead with 7:42 remaining in the game.
“That was the second time we could have folded,” Mouat said. “They really were pounding it in on us and Katherine Sunwall was killing us on the glass.
“But once again our kids just found a way to come back, and you can't ask for any more than that,” he added.
Indeed, slowly the Skylights crept their way back into the game. Jaci Heny started to attack the basket and get to the free-throw line, and Northern was also finding success in the paint via DeLayne Johnston and Ashley Trulock.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs appeared to tighten up some and by the time Johnston buried a 15-foot baseline jumper at the 1:07 mark, the Skylights had cut Western's lead to one point, 72-71.
MSU-N then got a golden chance to finalize the comeback on Western's ensuing possession. The Bulldogs failed to beat the shot clock, and on the other end of the floor, Heny appeared to have a wide-open layup that would have given the Skylights the lead. But O'Neil forced her to change her shot in midair and her shot bounced off the back iron.
After two Western free-throws, the Skylights had 20 seconds to come up with a game-tying shot. Heny, Camille Gardner and Jena Heggem worked the ball around, but didn't get a clean look at the basket before time expired.
“Western had that last sequence defended really well,” Mouat said. “We had three options and all three of our kids never got a good look at the basket.
“It is disappointing not to have gotten a better shot off at the end of the game,” Mouat added. “And it's a tough way to end the conference season. But I couldn't be more proud of these kids than I already am. They played every second of this season as hard as they possibly could, and we just came up a little short tonight.”
Suhr and Sunwall paced Western with 25 and 15 points, respectively. Suhr knocked down six trey's and Sunwall grabbed 15 rebounds. O'Neil added 16 points in the win.
Heny, who played most of the second half in tremendous pain after a collision with Gardner, finished with 23 points to lead Northern. Johnston added 14 points and Trulock came off the bench to score 10.
“I thought that Jena Heggem and Ashley Trulock were both huge for us in both games we played in this tournament,” Mouat said. “Jena really stepped up and made some big shots and Ashley was really big for us tonight.
“All of our kids played extremely well as they have done all season,” he added. “This has been an amazing year considering all that we have gone through as a team. Right now all I can say is how proud I am of this team and how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to coach these kids.”
And the 19-9 Skylights' season isn't over yet. Mouat expects to hear the official word on the NAIA national tournament sometime Tuesday afternoon.
“I definitely think we have earned our way in,” he said. “We're disappointed we didn't go farther in the tournament, but we know we have more basketball to play and this next two weeks is going to be very exciting for us.”
Bulldogs 74, Skylights 71
MSU-N - DeLayne Johnston 4-12 6-8 14, Jena Heggem 3-7 0-0 9, Michele VanDyke 3-8 0-2 6, Camille Gardner 3-7 0-0 7, Jaci Heny 7-20 7-10 23, Neesha Bravard 1-2 0-0 2, Mandee Carroll 0-0 0-0 0, Ashley Trulock 3-7 4-4 10. Totals 24-63 17-24 71.
UMW - Becky O'Neil 5-15 6-8 16, Katherine Sunwall 7-14 1-2 15, Crystal Kain 4-8 2-2 11, Megan Schmitz 1-7 2-2 5, Billie Suhr 7-14 5-5 25, Melanie Scott 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 24-61 18-21 74.
Halftime - UMW 39, MSU-N 36. 3-point goals - MSU-N 6-15 (Heggem 3-5, Heny 2-7, Gardner 1-2), UMW 8-23 (Suhr 6-11, Kain 1-4, Schmitz 1-5). Fouled out - Sunwall. Rebounds - MSU-N 39 (Gardner 9), UMW 44 (Sunwall 15). Total fouls - MSU-N 16, UMW 19.