Havre Daily News sports editor
The Montana State Univserity-Northern women's basketball team is red hot right now. And on Saturday night at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse, Skylight fans will have one last chance to see them play.
Northern will host the University of Great Falls Argos at 6 p.m. in its final home game of the season. It will be the third time the No. 24 Skylights have faced UGF this season, with each team winning on its own home floor.
The game is expected to be an intense, emotional contest for a number of reasons, the first of which is the fact that the Skylights want to rebound from a disappointing loss at UGF on Jan. 28. At the time, Northern was in the midst of a slump, but the Argos were in last place in the league standings.
“I wasn't very happy when we left Great Falls that night,” MSU-N head coach Chris Mouat said. “If we are going to beat them on Saturday night, we're going to have to play much better basketball, especially defensively. I was really unhappy with our defense in Great Falls.”
The second reason the game between MSU-N (7-6, 17-8) and UGF will be emotionally charged is because both squads have postseason implications at stake. The Skylights are locked in as the No. 4 seed in the Frontier Conference tournament, and win or lose they will play Westminster College in the opening round of the tournament.
But Mouat is concerned about momentum heading into the tournament and improving upon what Northern has done down the stretch. The Skylights have won three straight games, including a pair of home wins last weekend against nationally ranked Lewis-Clark State and Westminster.
“Our goal last weekend was to make sure we improved,” Mouat said. “And we look at this game the same way. It is a big game for us because we want to keep progressing. We want to be playing good basketball going into the tournament, and this is the last game before we head to Butte.”
The Argos (3-10, 7-21) also have a lot at stake. They are trying to avoid staying out of the Frontier Conference cellar. UGF is one game ahead of last-place Montana Tech, but the Orediggers play twice this weekend. A loss to Northern coupled with two Tech wins would make the Argos the No. 7 seed in next week's tournament.
“We expect a battle from them,” Mouat said. “They are a good team and we have seen that firsthand.
“We don't match up all that well with them,” he added. “They have great shooters at all five positions and they have a pretty good bench. This is going to be a tough battle.”
UGF has one of the conference's leading scorers in former MSU-N guard Laura Keaster. The 5-6 sophomore went for 20 points in the Argos' loss to MSU-N in December, and she scored 22 points in the win over Northern last month. Megan Shwantes also will cause matchup problems for the Skylights, and she too scores in double figures.
With so much intrigue already infiltrating the game between the Skylights and Argos, add the fact that it is also senior night at MSU-N, and you have one emotional night.
Northern seniors Jaci Heny and Camille Gardner will play their last home game in Havre, and although Mouat knows there is still basketball left to be played, he admits it will be emotional.
“I have mixed feelings because I know that both of them have a lot of basketball left this season. We're not done by any means,” he said. “But I know how much they both love playing here and they love our fans so much. So it is going to be a special night.”
Heny has been spectacular in her two years at MSU-N. She broke the school's single-game scoring record last Friday night when she poured in 40 points against LC State. That performance not only earned her Frontier Conference player of the week honors, but NAIA player of the week as well. She is averaging 19.9 points per game this season and she leads the league in free-throw percentage, and is second in steals and third in assists. Heny's numbers over the last month have catapulted her to an obvious NAIA player of the year candidate.
Gardner has been the Skylights' rock at point guard. While she has a great outside shot and is more than capable of putting up big numbers offensively, it is her maturity running the team on the floor that has propelled Northern back to a national power the last two years.
“I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to be called their coach for one year,” Mouat said. “Both Jaci and Camille are great basketball players, but just as important, they are tremendous student athletes and even better people. I couldn't have asked for a better situation as a first-year head coach than having the privilege of coaching both of them.”
Saturday night's regular-season finale between MSU-N and UGF will tip off at 6 p.m. at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse in Havre.