MSU-Northern starts tough road trip tonight at NCAA Division II MSU-Billings
George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor email@example.com
The Frontier Conference season doesn’t start until January. But Montana State University-Northern women’s basketball coach Chris Mouat is making sure that his team will be ready when conference play rolls around next month. Mouat and the No. 24 Skylights (8-3) are set to embark on the most difficult portion of their nonconference schedule, starting tonight with a game at NCAA Division II Montana State University-Billings. The Skylights and Lady Yellowjackets tip off at 6 in Billings. Tonight’s game is the start of an extremely difficult stretch of three games for MSU-N. After the Skylights leave Billings, they will head to Lewiston, Idaho, for a pair of games against Simon-Fraser University and NCAA Division III George Fox University. “We’re certainly going to find out where we’re at after these three games,” Mouat said. “The three teams we’re playing this week are very good. All three of them have played tough competition this season and all three of them are extremely talented. “But our schedule is like this for a reason,” he added. “We want to play these good teams right now because conference play is coming soon and games like this will certainly prepare us for what we’re going to go through every night in our league.” Tonight, the Skylights will take on a former Frontier Conference foe in MSU-B. The series between Northern and MSU-B goes back a long way, and the two teams hooked up most recently in 2003, when MSU-B beat Northern 79- 71 in Billings. The Lady Jackets lead the overall series, 27-21. MSU-B is 2-3 this season, but the Lady Jackets are predicted to finish at or near the top of the always-talented Heartland Conference. And despite their sub-.500 record, Mouat knows his team is in for a real battle tonight. “Well, they are just a very good team,” he said. “They are young, but they are very talented. “They have better guards than we have seen this season,” he added. “And they have an All-American post player who will present us with a difficult matchup.” That All-American Mouat speaks of is 6-0 forward Michelle Lieber. Lieber is a dominant post player who is averaging 16. 6 points and 9.6 rebounds this season. The duty of trying to stop Leiber tonight will likely fall on MSU-N standout DeLayne Johnston, who is off to a great start in her own right. Johnston is averaging 16 points and 11 rebound in 2006. Johnston will get help defensively and on the offensive end from Michele VanDyke, Jayla McPherson and Ashley Trulock. Trulock is coming off the bench to give MSU-N 11 points and six rebounds per outing. Defense will be critical for MSU-N tonight, and guarding Lieber isn’t the only challenge the Skylights face. MSU-B gets solid production from former Lewistown standout Alira Carpenter (14.6 ppg), as well as 5-10 Belgrade star Jen Smith and 5-11 Kayla McPherson. In the backcourt, the Lady Jackets have a great guard and a dangerous shooter in Jetton Meadows. “Getting off to a good start defensively is going to be critical against a team like this,” Mouat said. “We can’t afford to put ourselves in a hole in the first half. If we do that, we could be in for a long night. “And guarding them is just as tough on the perimeter as it is in the paint,” he added. “Their quickness at the guard position is certainly a concern. They just have a lot of really good pieces to the puzzle.” Of course, stopping MSU-B will only be half of the chore facing the Skylights tonight. Northern must also get offensive production both inside and out to have a chance of leaving Billings victorious. At the guard position, Chelsie Searle is off to a hot start this season, averaging 13 points per game and shooting better then 45 percent from the 3-point line. Point guard Becky Sorenson also has improved steadily since she made her Skylight debut back in October. “This is a great challenge for our basketball team,” Mouat said. “We’re really going to find out a lot about ourselves down there. I mean, you do that with whoever you play, but playing MSU-B is a big step up for us and it will certainly tell us where we need to be come January.” Tonight’s game in Billings is an exhibition for MSU-N, but it will count toward the Lady Jackets’ overall record. Northern will stay in Billings tonight and head for Idaho Thursday morning. The Skylights will face one of the best, if not the best Canadian women’s program this season in Simon-Fraser Friday at 5 p.m. and then face George Fox Saturday at 3 p. m. “It’s hard to impress upon people how good Simon-Fraser is this year,” Mouat said. “They are going to contend for a national championship in Canada this season. They are loaded with talent and they play a great schedule. Last year they played Connecticut and the University of Texas. Those were nonconference games for them. So we are really going to have our hands full. “And George Fox is expected to contend for a league championship and a spot in the national tournament,” he added. “These three games are going to be really tough on us. But we want that right now. We want to play great teams like this and we’re excited about the trip.” The Skylights wrap up the month of December with road games at the University of Mary and Dickinson State University.