Havre Daily News sports editor
It is hard to believe, but, when the Montana State University-Northern men's and women's basketball teams travel to Great Falls on Saturday night to take on the University of Great Falls Argos, it will mark the halfway point of the 2005 Frontier Conference season.
And Saturday's games won't just be the renewal of an old rivalry. It will be more about two games in which all parties involved are searching for a much-needed win.
The MSU-Northern women come into Saturday night's contest losers of three straight games, none of which were easy to swallow. In their last three outings, the Skylights lost on a last-second shot to Carroll College, a four-point defeat at Westminster College and a 20-point shellacking at the hands of Lewis-Clark State.
The three-game slide leaves the Skylights sitting at 2-4 in the Frontier Conference standings and 12-6 overall. While it would seem obvious to most that Northern is in dire need of victory against UGF, MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat just wants his team to play well, and let the chips fall where they may.
“That is our main priority on Saturday night,” Mouat said. “We need to go in there and play as well as we can and as hard as we can.
“We need to bounce back and respond to the loss to LC State,” he added. “If we can do that, we will be in good shape.”
Northern and UGF have already hooked up once this season, but the game was a nonconference tilt in Havre back in December. In that game, the Skylights thrashed the Argos, 83-62.
Mouat isn't counting on a repeat of that score this time around.
“That game is way in the past for both teams,” Mouat said. “I think UGF has grown up a lot since then and I know we have.
“They are a team that packs a lot of scoring punch and they have a lot of very capable, talented players. Plus this is a rivalry game on their home floor,” he added. “So we are going down there expecting a tough, hard-fought game from UGF.”
The Argos (1-5, 5-16) may be the most talented team with a bad record in the Frontier Conference in quite some time. UGF is getting great scoring from former MSU-N guard Laura Keaster, who averages 15.4 points per game, sixth best in the league. Keaster is also making 40 percent of her 3-point attempts this season. In the game against the Skylights in December, she scored a team-high 20 points.
“Laura is having a great season,” Mouat said. “She is definitely a player who can score in bunches and she is doing it against everyone in our league. She, along with Megan Shwantes and Jessica Smith, give UGF a lot of scoring power, and we're going to have to do a good job on them defensively.”
Playing defense is something the Skylights have done well all season. However, Northern has gotten outrebounded by four straight opponents. That, along with getting the ball inside more often, will be crucial on Saturday, Mouat said.
“We have to get back to moving the ball inside and then out,” he said. “Because of the teams we have faced the last couple of weeks, we have gotten away from that a little.
“That has also caused us to not get to the foul line as much,” he added. “So we need to get our offense headed in that direction again, because when we attack the basket and we are aggressive, I think that is when we are most dangerous.”
Despite the losing streak, the Skylights still have four players in the top 10 in the conference in scoring, led by senior Jaci Heny (19.1 ppg). DeLayne Johnston (14.4 ppg), Michele VanDyke (12.6 ppg) and Camille Gardner (11.8 ppg) are also among the league leaders in points.
Like the women's game, Saturday night's tilt between the MSU-N and UGF men will also be a battle of two teams trying to right the ship.
The Lights come to Great Falls having suffered two bad road losses at Westminster and LC State. In the game against the Warriors, Northern's usually potent offense took a hiatus, and the Lights wound up scoring under 50 points for the first time this season.
If things are going to turn around against the Argos, the Lights will have to have help for leading scorer Jordan Matthews, who is fifth in the league at 16.4 points per game. Northern had been getting steady double-digit scoring from sophomore Cory Brothers and junior Ronnie Simpson, but both players struggled on the Lights' most recent road trip.
A player who has been heating up for the Lights is sophomore Cody Gillespie. The reserve forward and former Great Falls High all-state player will be making a homecoming on Saturday night, and will no doubt be hoping to help the Lights return to their winning ways.
While the Lights will look to regain their offensive swagger on Saturday night, they will also have to play solid defense if they are to get out of Great Falls with a much-needed win.
Despite being winless in Frontier Conference play this season, the Argos (0-6, 7-14) possess two dangerous offensive threats and a host of talented athletes.
UGF has the conference's third leading scorer in 6-4 junior Tyrone Witherspoon. The lanky swingman is averaging 17.1 points per game and seven rebounds. Witherspoon is also second in all of NAIA basketball in field goal percentage, averaging a hefty 64 percent from the floor.
UGF also has the nation's leading assist man in sophomore point guard Keithan Gregg (9.8 apg). Gregg is also fifth in the nation in steals, and he is among the league's top 3-point shooters.
In all, the Argos have six players scoring in double figures, and as a team, they are averaging about 85 points per game. There is no doubt the game could come down to who executes on offense and who can get a critical defensive stop in the second half.
Saturday night's game between the MSU-N and UGF women will tip off at 6 p.m. and the men will get under way at 8 p.m. All of the action will take place at the McLaughlin Center on the UGF campus in Great Falls.