Havre Daily News sports editor
The final road trip of the season can be a double-edged sword for any basketball team.
Success can mean getting a leg up on the rest of the conference, and failure can create immense pressure to win the rest of the way out.
That is the dilemma facing both the Montana State University-Northern men's and women's basketball teams this week, as both squads embark on the final road trip of the regular season.
On Thursday night, the Lights and Skylights will be in Helena to take on the Carroll College Fighting Saints. After a day off, they will move on to Billings to square off against Rocky Mountain College on Saturday night.
The MSU-N women are coming off a spectacular homestand in which the Skylights (4-5, 14-7) blew out Montana Tech on Friday night and then No. 9 UM-Western on Saturday.
With two wins in hand, Northern will look to build upon that success and climb back to .500 in conference play when they face the Saints (6-3, 20-4) on Thursday night.
The last time the two teams hooked up, former Havre High standout Jolene Fuzesy stunned the Skylights in Havre with a dramatic, game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift the Saints to victory. The loss started a four-game losing streak that the Skylights finally ended last weekend.
That wasn't the last time Fuzesy hit a heroic game-winning shot. The 5-9 sophomore from Malta drilled another game-winner last Saturday night to give the Saints an upset over conference-leading Lewis-Clark State. It was the Warriors' first loss of the season in conference play and their first loss at home in almost two years.
Fuzesy has steadily been climbing the scoring ranks in conference play this season, averaging 14.8 points per game. She also leads the league in 3-point percentage, making 51 percent of her attempts from beyond the arc.
Despite Fuzesy's heroics, MSU-N senior Jaci Heny may be the league's hottest player. The 5-8 guard is averaging 21 points per game and leads the league in free-throw percentage. She is second in the league in steals and third in assists. Heny is coming off a weekend in which she scored 47 points in two games, including a 26-point outburst against Western.
MSU-N sophomore forward DeLayne Johnston isn't far behind on the list of who's hot and who's not. Johnston averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds over her last two games, and she has four double-doubles in her last seven outings. If she and Heny can stay hot, a win in Helena against the Saints isn't out of the realm of possibility. That would help the Skylights heading into their final road game against RMC. Northern is tied with Westminster College for fourth place in league play.
The Bears at one time were the league's surprise team. But they have dropped three of their last four games and have slipped to fifth place in the league standings. Northern already owns two double-digit wins over RMC, including a 16-point win last month in Havre.
Still, Rocky has been a tough opponent on its home floor and the Bears are getting a monster freshman campaign from Josie Evans. In both meetings against MSU-N, Evans has scored in double figures, including a 21-point, 18-rebound outing in Havre. RMC is also getting good production from Lori Jo Neubauer and Stephanie Neubauer, as well as former HHS star Geri Matter.
Like the MSU-N women, the Northern men will be involved in a couple of revenge games this weekend. When the Lights take the floor Thursday night in Helena, they will be under siege after embarrassing Carroll College last month in Havre. After Carroll's 20-point loss at Northern, the Saints ripped off a five-game winning streak before falling at Westminster last weekend. The loss left the Saints (7-2, 21-3) in a tie for first-place with the Griffins.
Meanwhile, the Lights (5-4, 16-9) were up and down at home last weekend. Northern blew out Montana Tech on Friday night, but then got drubbed by UM-Western on Saturday night. The split left Northern in a three-way tie for second in the conference standings with LC State and Western.
While a win in Helena will be tough, as the Saints are unbeaten on their home floor this season, the loss to Western put a lot of emphasis on Saturday night's game in Billings.
Northern has already lost to RMC once this season and a second loss would be devastating to the Lights' chances of earning a top seed in the Frontier Conference tournament next month.
That is where the revenge factor comes into play. Rocky's Chris Nickolei hit a wild 3-pointer as time expired to beat the Lights in Havre last month. Since that time Nickolei has been on a tear and he is among the league leaders in scoring and rebounding.
But, the Bears didn't use that win in Havre as a springboard. RMC (4-5, 12-12) has lost several close games as of late, and this week they are below .500 in the conference standings for the first time all year. A second win over the Lights, however, could get the Bears back into the hunt for a top three seed in the conference tournament, and that is what makes Saturday's game one of the most intriguing matchups of the week.
Thursday night's action between MSU-N and Carroll College in Helena will get under way at 6 p.m with the women's game. The men will tip off at 8 p.m.
Saturday night in Billings, the MSU-N and RMC women will begin at 6 p.m. and the men's game will be at 8 p.m.