Havre Daily News sports editor
For the second time this season, the Montana State University-Northern Skylights are playing at home for the first time in almost a month. Northern has endured two long road trips this season, winding up with a 1-1 finish last weekend in Dillon and Butte.
The last time the Skylights played at home, it was Dec. 17, and they were in the middle of the nonconference season. After that, Northern went to Hawaii where it earned two wins over top-quality opponents. And last weekend the Skylights opened up the Frontier Conference season with a loss at UM-Western, which snapped a six-game winning streak, before coming back the next night to rout Montana Tech in Butte.
Tonight at 6, the No. 24 Skylights (11-3, 1-1) will play their conference home-opener against a very familiar foe in Rocky Mountain College. It is the start of what should be a very entertaining and interesting weekend, as Northern will also host No. 15 Carroll College on Saturday night.
Both games feature former Havre High School players. Tonight's matchup will pit first-year MSU-N head man Chris Mouat, who is a former RMC assistant coach, against his mentor and former team.
“This is a very exciting weekend of basketball for us,” Mouat said. “First, we're just really excited to be playing at home in front of our fans again.
“But these are also some important games against two very good teams,” he said. “It is now that time of year when everybody is very familiar with each other and it makes for some very exciting basketball.”
Rocky (5-11, 1-1) comes into tonight's game playing very good basketball, despite its overall record. The Bears are sitting at 1-1 in conference play, having beaten Westminster College in the opening weekend of play.
Northern and Rocky have already seen each other this season, having met in a nonconferenc game on Dec. 3 in Wolf Point. That was an emotional night for all involved, as the game marked the Skylights' return to the floor after their well-chronicled Nov. 14 van crash in western Montana. The Skylights prevailed that night, but Mouat says that game or any other nonconference game will have no bearing on tonight's contest.
“The game we played against Rocky Mountain College was a long time ago, and I think both teams have done a lot of growing since then,” Mouat said. “Right now I believe Rocky is playing as well as anybody, and we are expecting them to come in here and give us a very good game.”
If anyone would know what the Bears bring to the table and how to prepare for them, it would be Mouat - hence the high amount of respect he has for RMC, despite the Bears' less-than-stellar overall record.
“They are a very athletic and deep team,” Mouat said. “I think that is their biggest two strengths.
“They have also played one of the toughest nonconference schedules in our league this year. So I think that has really toughened them up and prepared them for the conference season,” he added. “And Coach (Brian) Henderson is doing a phenomenal job, and he has them playing very well right now.”
The Bears are led by a pair of sophomores in Wolf Point natives Lori Jo and Stephanie Neubauer. The duo have given the Bears an exciting, up-tempo combo that complements leading scorer Alyssa Root (12.0 ppg) very nicely. Rocky is also getting solid production from former Havre High standout Jeri Matter. The 6-0 senior is the team's leading rebounder. Freshmen Josi Evans (5-11) and Alysa Brown (5-10) are giving Henderson's bunch some added scoring.
“The game against Rocky will be a very tough test for our kids,” Mouat said. “We're playing well right now and we've shown that we can score some points.
“But the biggest key for us will be rebounding and establishing an inside presence,” he added. “We are shooting the ball pretty well right now, but we don't want to live and die from out there. It is important for us to go inside and to rebound the ball well.”
Northern's inside game has come on strong as of late. Despite having to march into the Frontier season without forward Jayla McPherson, who went down with a knee injury early in November, the Skylights are getting tremendous production in the paint.
DeLayne Johnston has upped her scoring average to 16.2 points per game, which is sixth best in the league. She is also averaging 9.2 rebounds per contest. Fellow forward Michele VanDyke is posting 12.8 points per game, which is 11th in the league right now, and reserve forward Ashley Trulock is coming off a 16-point game against Montana Tech.
Of course, Northern's guards aren't playing badly either. Jaci Heny is third in the conference in scoring (18.7 ppg), second in assists (5.2 apg) and first in free-throw percentage. Senior Camille Gardner rounds out the Skylights' double-digit scoring with 12.6 points per game.
On Saturday night, things won't get any easier for the Skylights when they welcome an angry Carroll College team to town. The No. 15 Saints (0-2, 15-3) are coming off back-to-back losses to Lewis-Clark State and Westminster College last weekend.
“Carroll is still one of the teams to beat in this league,” Mouat said. “They are as explosive a team offensively as we'll see all season. They are so athletic and they can hurt you in so many different ways.
“We know they will come in here very hungry and very ready to play,” he added.
Indeed, the Saints, who were picked by many to win the league title this season, have a plethora of offensive talent, led by sophomore Jolene Fuzesy. The 5-10 sharpshooter was a standout at Malta and Havre High before heading to Carroll. In her second season as a Saint, she is leading the team in scoring at 14 points per game, and she is tops in the league in 3-point percentage, making half of her threes per game, and 3-pointers made.
“Jolene Fuzesy is shooting lights out right now,” Mouat said. “She is definitely a concern for us. But they have a lot of weapons like that, so we're going to have to play very good defense to stay with them.”
Emily Woody is averaging more than 10 points per outing and the Saints are getting the same from Amy Brooks, Danielle Maloney and Carly Syverson.
Tonight's game between MSU-N and RMC will tip off at 6 at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse. Saturday night's game between Northern and Carroll is also slated to get under way at 6 p.m.