Havre Daily News sports editor
Over the last two months, the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team has been a giant killer, knocking off several nationally ranked teams.
The Skylights did it three times in the regular season, and, on Wednesday, in the opening round of the 2006 NAIA national tournament in Jackson, Tenn., they did it again when they beat No. 13 Oklahoma Christian University, 82-68.
If MSU-N wants to keep its magical season alive and hang around Jackson a little longer, the Skylights will have to beat another nationally-ranked team when they face No. 12 The Master's College today at 2:30 in the Sweet 16.
Northern beat Oklahoma Christian on Wednesday with a solid all-around performance on both ends of the floor.
The Skylights got a combined 46 points from Jaci Heny and Camille Gardner, and as a team, they made nine 3-pointers. The Skylights also dominated the Eagles inside. Junior DeLayne Johnston scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds and MSU-N outrebounded the Eagles 45-31.
“I thought we did some really good things and the big thing was, the kids played with a lot of confidence,” MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat said. “But there are some things that we can do better. We turned the ball over way too much, and in the next round we just can't afford to do that.”
The second-seeded Mustangs, who hail from Santa Clarita, Calif., also had a fairly easy time in the tournament's opening round on Wednesday, defeating Auburn-Montgomery University, 65-50. Wednesday's win helped the Mustangs reach the NAIA Sweet 16 for the second straight year.
And like the No. 24 Skylights, the Mustangs (27-6) have also been knocking off giants recently.
The Mustangs finished third in the Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season standings, but in the GSAC tournament, they defeated No. 1-ranked Vanguard University and then No. 4 Point-Loma Nazarene College consecutively to capture the GSAC title and earn an automatic berth into this week's tourney.
The Mustangs' first-round win didn't come without a price, however. Starting senior guard Grace Tappe, the team's on-court leader, suffered a knee injury with three minutes left in Wednesday's game and her availability for today's matchup with the Skylights is still in doubt.
Tappe is averaging 11 points and 6.3 assists per game and she shoots 88 percent from the free-throw line. Tappe is also the only senior in the Mustangs' four-guard starting lineup and her absence today could be a deciding factor in the outcome.
But with or without Tappe, the Mustangs are a talented team and they are a dangerous club from the outside. Junior Kinsley Mittle leads the team in scoring at 17 points per game. Mittle also connects on 42 percent of her 3-point attempts. The Mustangs also start a pair of talented freshmen guards in 5-6 Angela Gineno and 6-1 Jenn Ayers-Stamper. Ayers-Stamper is another dangerous 3-point shooter. Courtney Jackson (6-2) is the team's top post player, averaging 10 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
The Mustangs also have a trio of solid players coming off the bench in 5-8 junior Brianne Yahn, 6-0 senior Jessica Seyler and 6-4 sophomore Kelsey Shugert.
With both teams riding high after first-round triumphs, today's game will probably come down to who is better prepared and who is more poised down the stretch. Poise is something that Mouat felt his team had a lot of on Wednesday.
“I thought the kids looked really sharp and they stayed really focused even when we were in foul trouble in the second half,” Mouat said of Wednesday's game. “But now we have to start all over and be ready to play against another really good team. That is what makes this tournament tough - the only game that counts is the one you're playing in.”
In other first-round action on Thursday, third-seeded Carroll College became the first Frontier Conference casualty of the tournament. The Saints were upset in the opening round by sixth-seeded St. Xavier College 56-53. Fourth-seeded Lewis-Clark State got by Brewton-Parker College 64-51, and the Warriors will square off against top-seeded Trevecca Nazarene later today. This morning, second-seeded UM-Western was shocked by sixth-seeded Oklahoma Baptist, 64-63 in the opening game of the second round.
Today's second-round game in the NAIA national tournament between MSU-N and The Master's College will tip off at 2:30 p.m. at the Oman Arena. The game can be heard locally on 92.5 FM KPQX.