Havre Daily News sports editor
With seven games remaining in the Frontier Conference men's basketball season, most people would think that teams now have to play with a sense of urgency.
Montana State University-Northern head coach Shawn Huse has a different outlook. Huse's Lights are in a three-way tie for third place at 4-3, along with Rocky Mountain College and Lewis-Clark State. While Northern (15-8) returns home tonight for a critical game with Montana Tech and faces UM-Western on Saturday, Huse isn't looking too far ahead.
For that matter, he isn't looking back either.
“We know that we're a half-court shot away from being 5-2 right now,” Huse said. “But we also know that strange things happen every night in this league and that is the way it is.
“It is that time of year when things really start to heat up and everybody is fighting for those top two spots in the league,” he added. “But right now we are just focusing on what's right in front of us and that is Montana Tech. We just want to come out and play well this weekend and take care of business on our home floor.”
While Huse has no intentions of looking ahead, he does know that protecting the home floor this weekend could serve the Lights well in the long run. While Northern plays at home, the rest of the upper echelon in the Frontier is battling it out, as Carroll College and RMC travel to Westminster College and LC State, respectively.
“We know that we have a lot of games at home coming up,” Huse said. “So if we stay focused on playing one game at a time and we take care of business at home, we will be in really good shape at the end of the season.”
Tonight the Lights welcome the Montana Tech Orediggers in a rematch of one of Northern's closest wins to date. On the opening weekend of the Frontier season, the Lights went into Butte and stole a 77-75 win.
Since that time the Orediggers (2-5, 10-11) have struggled, winning just two conference games in January. Despite that fact, Huse has seen Tech firsthand and he knows what the team brings to the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse tonight.
“They are a very talented team,” Huse said. “They have some very good players and a lot of capable scorers.
“The key for us will really be to set the tone defensively,” he added. “We have to do that and we can't afford to let their shooters get hot.”
Tech's shooters like Davin Blixt and Sam Conley are certainly a concern for the Lights, and the Orediggers have another weapon that the Lights don't see very often - a dominant center. Tech's 6-11 big man, TJ Scarbrough, will match up against Northern's Yanif Ducreay for the second time this season. Both players fared well in the first meeting, and Huse said the matchup will be crucial again tonight.
“He (Scarbrough) is tall, long and very strong,” Huse said. “He is also very good around the basket and he knows how to score the ball. Stopping him is a big challenge for Yanif and the rest of our guys.”
On Saturday night the Lights will face one of the league's hottest teams in the UM-Western Bulldogs (3-4, 9-11). Western has been playing well as of late after starting the season slowly. Included in that slow start was a 78-66 loss to Northern in Dillon on the opening night of the season.
Despite that loss, veteran head coach Mark Durham's team is playing at an extremely high level, and they have the league's leading offensive player in junior Ty Palmer. The sharpshooting Palmer is averaging about 19 points per game and is one of the league's deadliest 3-point shooters.
Palmer isn't the only weapon the Bulldogs have. Despite their sub-.500 record, Western has a host of talented players, including former MSU-N and Chester High School standout Jeff Graham, as well as guard Jeff Feenstra and forward Wes Morales. The gem of the group might just be a freshman, however. Former Missoula Hellgate point guard Charlie Cox has stepped into the Western lineup and is averaging in double figures in scoring. He is among the league leaders in 3-point shooting, assists and steals.
“Western is a team who is always dangerous to play,” Huse said. “They are well coached and they are always a very good offensive team who can score a lot of points.
“They have some very good players and when their shooters get hot, they are very tough to beat.”
The Lights don't have any slouches on offense either. Last Saturday in Great Falls, Northern scored 95 points in a win over the University of Great Falls and had six players reach double figures. Senior Jordan Matthews (16 ppg) is still among the league leaders in scoring, and junior Ronnie Simpson has been scoring in bunches as of late. The Lights are also getting solid scoring off the bench from senior Reid Stovall and sophomore Cody Gillespie.
Still, with two potent offensive teams coming in this weekend, Huse said the games will be won or lost on the defensive end of the floor.
“If we're going to be one of those top two or three teams in the league, we have to play a physical, tough brand of basketball from here on out,” Huse said. “That is one of the things I was so pleased with in Great Falls last weekend. We did that and we need to keep doing it this weekend.”
Tonight's game between MSU-N and Montana Tech will tip off at 8 at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse. The Lights and Bulldogs will get under way at 8 p.m. on Saturday.