Havre Daily News sports editor
Saturday afternoon's game between the Montana State University-Northern Lights and the University of Lethbridge was to be the final test for the Lights before they begin Frontier Conference play this weekend.
And in their final nonconference exam, the Lights didn't exactly pass with flying colors. Despite sloppy offense and a lackluster performance, Northern managed to escape with a 66-60 victory over the Pronghorns at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse, to close out 2005 with an 11-5 record.
“I wasn't real pleased with our effort mentally or physically today,” MSU-N head coach Shawn Huse said. “I expected us to be a little rusty because of the layoff. But our physical effort today was unacceptable. We just didn't come prepared to play.”
It looked as though the Lights were prepared to play early on, as senior Jordan Matthews converted an easy layup to put Northern out in front. It would be the Pronghorns, however, who were much more focused in the first half, as they ripped off runs of 15-2 and 9-1 to lead by as many as 11 points midway through the half.
Most of Lethbridge's fortunes came from the 3-point line and sloppy MSU-N execution. The Lights had 11 of their 16 turnovers in the first 13 minutes of the game.
“We passed the ball very poorly in the first half,” Huse said. “You have to give Lethbridge a lot of credit. They played harder than we did for most of the game. And they were making their shots in the first half.”
Despite the poor play, Northern managed to somehow wrestle the lead away from Lethbridge via a 19-3 run to close out the first half. During that stretch the Lights turned up the defensive pressure on the Pronghorns, and Matthews and sophomore Cory Brothers started to find their way to the basket - a trend that would continue in the second half.
“I thought the guys did a good job of finding a way to overcome some things, and thankfully we got the lead back,” Huse said. “We were lucky, though. If Lethbridge had shot the ball in the second half like they did in the first, we would have been in some real trouble.”
Instead the Pronghorns went cold from the outside in the game's final 20 minutes and Brothers shouldered the bulk of the scoring load down the stretch.
Northern's 38-35 halftime lead would be as close as the Pronghorns got. During one sequence, Brothers scored seven straight points for the Lights, including an emphatic dunk that was made possible by a crafty Matthews steal at halfcourt.
Despite the 6-point margin of victory, the Lights led by as many as 13 points in the second half, and good free-throw shooting at the end of the game thwarted any chances of a Pronghorn comeback.
“I thought we cleaned some things up defensively in the second half,” Huse said. “And we didn't turn it over as much.
“You never want to hang your head after a win,” he added. “But our mental and physical effort was just not there like it should have been.”
Brothers was the bright spot in an otherwise dismal offensive display. The former HHS standout scored a game-high 19 points, including a 5-for-7 performance from the free-throw line. He also dished out four assists and grabbed seven boards. Matthews, who appeared to be fully recovered from a leg injury he suffered two weeks ago, added 13 points.
As a team, the Lights shot 35 percent from the field and were an abysmal 1-for-12 from beyond the arc.
The Pronghorns were led by Todd McClenaghan's 18 points. Scott MacKinnon chipped in with 16.
Saturday also saw backup point guard Leo Bullchild's return to action, as well as senior forward Reid Stovall. Bullchild had been sidelined the last month with a knee injury and Stovall had missed the last four games with a shoulder injury.
“That was nice to have everybody back and healthy,” Huse said. “I don't think Reid is all the way back but he played well when he was in there. And it is really going to help us down the road to have Leo available again.”
With the nonconference season now behind them, the Lights will take to the road this weekend. Northern opens the Frontier season on Friday in Dillon against UM-Western. The Lights will also be in Butte on Saturday night to square off against Montana Tech.
With their first two conference games now less than a week away, Huse is hoping his team got a message loud and clear on Saturday.
“Hopefully, they realize from how we played today that we can't expect to compete in our conference when we come to play like we did against Lethbridge,” he said. “We have to go back to work this week and really get our mental focus back and be ready to go this weekend.”
Lights 66, Pronghorns 60
UL - Richard Steed 1, Todd McClenaghan 18, Scott MacKinnon 16, Tim Whitehead 10, Eric Gallie 1, Richard Humphrey 5, Bruce Carbert 2, Denver Corbiere 5, Kevin Monson 2. Totals: 17-49 22-30 60.
MSU-N - Marcus Wilson 9, Yanif Ducreay 5, Jordan Matthews 13, Cory Brothers 19, Brian Erickson 1, Leo Bullchild 4, Reid Stovall 3, Cody Gillespie 2, Ronnie Simpson 9, Adrian Nelson 1. Totals: 25-53 15-23 66.
3-point goals - UL 4-14 (McClenaghan 2, MacKinnon 2), MSU-N 1-12 (Matthews 1). Rebounds - UL 35, MSU-N 34. Totals fouls - UL 23, MSU-N 19. Fouled out - None. Technical foul - MSU-N coach, 2:31, first half.