Havre Daily News sports editor
Montana State University-Northern men's basketball coach Shawn Huse says Rocky Mountain College forward Chris Nickolei and his miraculous game-winning 3-pointer Friday night might have been the best thing that happened to the Lights this weekend.
Nickolei nailed a 30-foot shot at the buzzer to stun the Lights, 80-79, at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse.
All the Lights did from there was respond by knocking off No. 2-ranked Carroll College on Saturday night in dominant fashion, 81-64, capping off a wild weekend of Frontier Conference basketball in Havre.
“If we don't lose the way we did to Rocky on Friday night, I'm not sure we come back and play as well as we did against Carroll,” Huse said. “That was the toughest way a team can lose a game, and I am so proud of how this team responded to that.
“They got angry. They kept their heads up,” Huse added. “And they came out with a lot of fire against Carroll. All the credit goes to our kids. They made this win happen.”
The win over the Saints snapped a nine-game winning streak for Carroll and kept the Lights in a first-place tie in the conference standings.
“This was a huge win for us from a confidence standpoint,” MSU-N senior Jordan Matthews said. “We felt like we played good enough to beat Rocky on Friday, but this team didn't hang their heads after that loss. We came out and played much more focused basketball, especially in the second half. We played this game like we were only up by three points right to the end of the buzzer. That is something we didn't do against Rocky.”
The dominating performance against the Saints was a total team effort, but Matthews carried the Lights home. He scored a game-high 29 points and broke the game open at the start of the second half by scoring Northern's first nine points. That spurt was part of an 11-0 run that pushed the Lights' halftime lead of 11 points, at 36-25, to 22 points at 47-27 with 15 minutes remaining in the game.
The Saints, who went to the NAIA Final Four last season, cut the Northern lead in half twice in the second half, but the Lights never let them get any closer.
Down the stretch the Lights handled Carroll's full-court pressure and they also did something they didn't do on Friday night - close the game out at the free-throw line.
“I think that was the biggest difference in the game,” Huse said. “We stayed composed and we played well with the lead. And we shot the ball extremely well from the free-throw line. We knew they would put us on the line at the end of the game and we took advantage.”
Another factor that might have gone unnoticed was the defensive play of Matthews and sophomore Cory Brothers. The duo shut down the tandem of Jeff Hays and Sinan Guler. Brothers held Hays to eight points, which was almost nine below his season average. Guler fouled out with just five points.
“Give credit to Jordan and Cory,” Huse said. “They really got us going with their defense in the first half. The defensive job they did on two of the league's premier players was phenomenal. Cory had one assignment and that was to control Jeff Hays and he did an incredible job.”
Matthews' torrid night also included three 3-pointers, five rebounds and six assists.
“When I start shooting the ball like I did tonight, I just gain a ton of confidence,” Matthews said. “But this win was about our team coming together. We played smart and we played hard and that is what I love about these guys. They are a lot of fun to play with and to be around.”
Ronnie Simpson and Leo Bullchild came off the bench to give the Lights a big lift. Most of Simpson's 14 points came down the stretch, and he made critical free throws to seal Carroll's fate. Bullchild had 10 points, nine of which came from the 3-point line. All of Bullchild's treys came during a 15-4 Northern run that gave the Lights their comfortable halftime lead.
Carroll got 20 points from Travis Williams and 12 from Curt Paulson.
Everything the Lights did right on Saturday night is what they did wrong in their loss to Rocky Mountain College on Friday night. The Lights led the Bears by 10 points with less than five minutes to play. But poor free-throw shooting and timely 3-point shooting by the Bears set up a crazy finish.
After Rocky's Chris Townley drilled a trey to cut the Lights' lead to one point, 78-77, with 13 seconds remaining in the game, Northern's Cody Gillespie was only able to convert one foul shot to up the lead to two points with nine seconds to go.
Rocky tried to convert a game-tying basket, but the ball was kicked out of bounds by Brian Erickson, leaving the Bears with 1.5 seconds to heave one final shot. And surprisingly it was the 6-6 Nickolei who took the inbounds pass and banked in a shocking 30-footer as time expired, handing the Lights a crushing blow.
“That is what can happen when you don't make free throws and take care of business at the end of the game,” Huse said. “But give all the credit to Rocky and Chris Nickolei. They made the plays at the end of the game and he made the shot.”
The shot highlighted a phenomenal game for Nickolei, who scored a game-high 30 points. He was unstoppable in the post, going 13-of-19 from the field. Cooper Warren also chipped in with 17 points, and Devin Uskoski added 12 points and 10 rebounds.
“Nickolei was a force against us,” Huse said. “But I think our big guys played well too. I thought we did some very good things offensively and we had control of the game from about halfway through the first half on. So we have nothing to hang our heads about. Especially since we were able to come back and play so well against Carroll.”
The loss to the Bears overshadowed a tremendous night offensively for the Lights as a team. Matthews and Brothers led five Lights players in double figures with 15 points apiece. Reid Stovall added 12 points and Marcus Wilson and Gillespie chipped in with 10 points each.
The weekend split forged a three-way tie for first place in the conference, with Northern, Carroll and Rocky all sitting at 3-1.
“This was a good weekend for us,” Huse said. “I think we learned a lot about ourselves and I think that road trip to Azusa Pacific really helped us to prepare to play such a seasoned team like Carroll.
“Now we have to go back to work and get ready for a big road trip this weekend,” he added.
The Lights (14-6) will be back in action on Thursday night when they visit Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Northern will also be at Lewis-Clark State on Saturday night.RMC - Devin Uskoski 3-8 5-7 10, Chris Nickolei 13-19 1-3 30, Eric Gallinger 1-4 0-0 3, Cooper Warren 6-8 4-5 17, Chris Townley 2-6 0-0 6, Curtis Dunwoody 2-6 0-0 5, Elijah Swan 1-4 2-2 4, Alvis Dowiels 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 29-57 15-21 80.
MSU-N - Reid Stovall 5-8 2-2 12, Marcus Wilson 5-10 0-0 10, Jordan Matthews 6-13 0-0 15, Cory Brothers 6-10 1-3 15, Brian Erickson 1-2 0-0 2, Leo Bullchild 1-1 2-2 5, Cody Gillespie 4-8 1-2 10, Ronnie Simpson 2-3 0-1 4, Yanif Ducreay 3-3 0-0 6. Totals 33-58 6-12 79.
3-point goals - RMC 7-14 (Uskoski 1, Nickolei 1, Gallinger 1, Warren 1, Townley 2, Dunwoody 1), MSU-N 7-20 (Matthews 3, Brothers 2, Bullchild 1, Gillespie 1); Rebounds - RMC 31 (Uskoski 10), MSU-N 29 (four tied with 3); Total fouls - RMC 18, MSU-N 20; Fouled out - None.
Lights 81, Saints 64
CC - Travis Williams 4-9 12-15 20, Ross Gustafson 3-5 1-4 7, Kurt Paulson 5-12 0-0 12, Jeff Hays 2-7 4-6 8, Sinan Guler 3-13 0-1 6, Zachary Pitts 3-9 1-1 9, Chad Vaculin 0-0 0-0 0, Dallas Leslie 0-2 0-0 0, Gage Brumwell 0-0 0-0 0, Chris Kaschmitter 1-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-58 18-27 64.
MSU-N - Marcus Wilson 2-3 0-0 4, Yanif Ducreay 2-5 0-0 4, Jordan Matthews 9-17 8-9 29, Cory Brothers 2-8 3-5 7, Brian Erickson 4-6 0-1 8, Nick Hittner 0-0 0-0 0, Leo Bullchild 3-5 1-2 10, Reid Stovall 1-1 1-2 3, Cody Gillespie 0-0 0-0 0, Ronnie Simpson 3-5 7-9 14, Adrian Nelson 0-0 0-0 0, Pathe Yatera 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 27-51 20-28 81.
3-point goals - CC 4-22 (Paulson 2, Pitts 2), MSU-N 7-10 (Matthews 3, Bullchild 3, Simpson 1); Rebounds - CC 35 (Williams 8), MSU-N 34 (Brothers 6); Total fouls - CC 23, MSU-N 20; Fouled out - Guler; Technical fouls - CC Coach.