Havre Daily News sports editor
It has been almost a month since Havre fans last saw the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team. It has also been that long since the Skylights last tasted victory.
Tonight at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse, the Skylights (2-5, 12-7) will try to snap a four-game losing streak when they host the Montana Tech Orediggers. Northern will also host UM-Western on Saturday night.
Even though the Skylights' conference record looks less than impressive, and they are tied for fifth place with the University of Great Falls, things are not as bad as they seem, according to MSU-N first-year head coach Chris Mouat.
“This is a group of kids who are very positive and they have remained that way,” Mouat said. “They also know that in order for us to get this turned around in the second half of the season they are going to have to be better in certain areas.”
Those areas are simple. The Skylights have to find a way to avoid being outrebounded, and they have to pick up their effort on the defensive end of the floor.
Despite possessing two quality post players in DeLayne Johnston and Michele VanDyke, the Skylights have had all kinds of problems in the rebounding department. Some if it is the opponents Northern has faced in the last two weeks. Trips to Westminster College and Lewis-Clark State meant the undersized Skylights were going up against some of the premier post players in the league.
Still, Mouat isn't making any excuses.
“We understand that we simply have to do a better job rebounding the basketball,” he said. “And against both teams we play this weekend we will have to be better on the glass or things might not go our way again. It is pretty simple.
“We also have to pick our effort back up on defense,” Mouat added. “I just felt like we weren't there defensively against Great Falls and it hurt us in the second half. But this team is resilient and they have been all year, so I have no doubt the effort will be there this weekend, especially playing on our home floor, in front of our fans.”
Offensively, Northern has had little trouble keeping up with anybody. The Skylights are one of the highest scoring teams in the league and one of the top free-throw shooting teams as well. Most of that is due to the play of senior Jaci Heny, who averages 19 points per game and leads the league in free-throw percentage. Northern also gets double-digit scoring from Johnston and VanDyke, as well as point guard Camille Gardner.
Tonight, the Skylights will look to end their tough luck when they host Montana Tech (1-6, 5-17). The Orediggers are in last place in the Frontier standings, and MSU-N already owns a 98-54 win over Tech, which came last month in Butte.
Despite their record and the lopsided victory the first time they faced the Orediggers, Mouat remains steadfast in his belief that Tech will come to Havre more than capable of handing the Skylights a fifth straight loss.
“The first time we played was a long time ago and you might as well throw it out,” Mouat said. “Tech is very much improved the last month and they will come in here a totally different team than the one we saw in Butte.”
The Orediggers have some offensive weapons that could give the Skylights trouble. Included in that group is former Box Elder star Tami Infante. But the one that has Mouat concerned is guard/forward Kyle Cook.
“Kyle Cook has been playing great basketball lately,” Mouat said. “She is really stepping to the front for them.”
On Saturday night the Skylights will go back to the daunting task of facing a team with dominant post players as they welcome No. 9 UM-Western (6-1, 19-3).
The Bulldogs have been one of the league's top teams all season and they start two of the league's premier players in the 6-1 tandem of Katherine Sunwall and Becky O'Neil. And while Mouat knows that containing the two big girls will be crucial, it is Western's guards, led by former Great Falls High standout Megan Schmitz, who have him concerned.
“Western is a very good, talented team,” Mouat said. “And they have two tremendous players in Katherine Sunwall and Becky O'Neil.
“But their guards are equally as talented,” he added. “They have three seasoned guards in their backcourt and they all handle the ball well and shoot it well from the perimeter. They are just a great all-around team.”
One can look at the Skylights' season in many different ways. Northern has lost three of its last four games by a combined seven points. The Skylights also lost to Western on opening night, 59-56, so if things had gone the other way, Saturday night's showdown might be for first place in the league standings.
But Mouat and the Skylights can't afford to look back, and he said the game against Western will once again come down to rebounding and defense.
“We got off to a really bad start against them the first time we played and if we hadn't, things might have been different,” Mouat said. “So getting off to a good start is crucial.
“But it's just like any other night from here on out. In order to be successful we have to rebound the ball better and we have to play really hard-nosed, solid defense.”
The Skylights are more than capable of doing both, especially at home, where they are very excited to be after being on the road for the last three weeks.
“We're really excited to play at home this weekend,” Mouat said. “We had tremendous support in Great Falls on Saturday night, and that just makes it even more special to be back at home. It is always special when we play at our gym and in front of our great fans.”
Tonight's game between the Skylights and Orediggers will get under way at 6. Saturday's game between MSU-N and UM-Western will also tip off at 6 p.m.