Havre Daily News sports editor
In the second-to-last week of the regular season, the Montana State University-Northern Lights won back-to-back games on last-second shots.
Then, last Saturday the Lights stumbled into the Frontier Conference tournament by losing to last-place UGF in Havre.
But, on Thursday night at the MAC in Butte, the Lights' flare for winning games at the last possible second was back in full force as junior Marcus Wilson laid in a shot as time expired, lifting MSU-N to a 76-74 first-round victory over fifth-seeded UM-Western. The win moves Northern into tonight's semifinal where the Lights will face No. 4 Carroll College at 8 p.m.
“We made it interesting at the end,” MSU-N head coach Shawn Huse said. “We had a pretty good lead in the second half, but then we started turning it over and missing free throws.
“If we would have played better in the last five minutes of the game we would have put Western away for good,” he added. “But in a tournament you take wins anyway you can get them. So we're very happy right now.”
Huse's assessment of the final minutes of the game was right on the money.
After Northern overcame an early first-half deficit to lead 35-31 at halftime, the Lights got on a roll in the second half. Northern's sputtering offense found its rhythm for the better part of the second half, and with 13 minutes to go the Lights had a comfortable 51-40 lead. Northern would extend that lead to as much as 14 points in the second half. But the Bulldogs wouldn't go away.
Jeff Feenstra knocked down a couple of big shots late in the half to get Western headed in the right direction. Then, in the last five minutes, the Lights turned the ball over six times, giving Western even more life. Northern was also horrid at the free-throw line, just as the Lights were last weekend against UGF. For the game, the Lights made just 11-of-21 foul shots, and they missed several critical ones down the stretch.
“The missed free throws really hurt us,” Huse said. “And we made some silly fouls too.
“But you have to take your hat off to Western,” he added. “They are a quality team and they didn't quit. They found a way to get back in it and all of a sudden we were fighting for our lives.”
Indeed, the Bulldogs wound up coming all the way back to tie the game at 74-74 with four seconds left in regulation. Huse called his last time out to set up a final shot to win the game.
Northern had to go the length of the floor in just four seconds, and with two quick passes, the Lights did just that. Then, Jordan Matthews found Wilson underneath the basket for the game-winner.
“We set up the play with a couple of different options in mind,” Huse said. “But Western's defense allowed Marcus to get free and Jordan hit him with a great pass.
“It feels great to win a tournament game how we did,” he added. “But we also feel fortunate because had it gone to overtime, you just don't know what could have happened. Western had all the momentum right there, so we feel very fortunate to have gotten out of there with a win in regulation.”
Matthews and Wilson paced four Lights in double figures with 15 and 14 points, respectively. Senior Reid Stovall came off the bench to give Northern 13 points and Brian Erickson chipped in with 11.
The Bulldogs got 19 points from Wes Morales and 15 from Charlie Cox in the losing effort.
With its season alive for at least one more night, Huse had little time to relish the exhilarating victory over the Bulldogs. Not with top-seeded Carroll looming in the semifinals.
“I am really proud of our kids because we overcame a lot of adversity in the second half and found a way to hold on and win,” Huse said. “But we also know we could have played much better and if we had we wouldn't have been in that position.
“Carroll is going to be a tough game for us and we know that,” he added. “We're going to have to play a lot better than we did tonight if we want to stay with them. But we came here prepared to play them and our guys have confidence that if we play well we know we can beat them.”
The Lights and Saints split their two regular-season games, each winning on their own home floor. Friday night's semifinal clash will get under way at 8. The winner will take on either Rocky Mountain College or Westminster College in Saturday night's championship game.
Lights 76, Bulldogs 74
UMW - Jeff Feenstra 2-5 1-2 7, Charlie Cox 6-15 4-5 16, Tyler Palmer 1-8 2-2 4, Jeff Graham 3-6 3-3 11, Wes Morales 5-10 9-15 19, Justin Hartman 4-11 0-0 9, Kellen Ori 3-3 2-4 8, Marshall Lagge 0-0 0-0 0. Totals - 24-58 21-31 74.
MSU-N - Marcus Wilson 7-14 0-1 14, Yanif Ducreay 1-2 0-2 2, Jordan Matthews 7-15 0-0 15, Cory Brothers 2-7 2-4 7, Brian Erickson 3-6 5-7 11, Nick Hittner 1-2 0-0 2, Reid Stovall 6-8 1-4 13, Cody Gillespie 1-2 2-2 4, Ronnie Simpson 3-7 1-2 8. Totals - 31-63 11-21 76.
Halftime - MSU-N 35. UMW 31; 3-pointers - UMW 5-25 (Feenstra 2-4, Graham 2-5, Hartman 1-6), MSUN 3-11 (Matthews 1-4, Brothers 1-3, Erickson Simpson 1-2); Rebounds - UMW 41 (Morales 10, Ori 7, Graham 6), MSU-N 40 (Matthews 10, Erickson 9, Wilson 4); Total Fouls - UMW 24 (Morales 5, four tied with 4), MSU-N 20 (Ducreay 5, Simpson 4); Fouled Out - Morales , Ducreay. Technicals - None.