George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor email@example.com
No matter the outcome, the game won't count in the win-loss column for the Montana State University-Northern Skylights. But make no mistake about it, when the Skylights step onto the court on Saturday night inside Dahlberg Arena in Missoula, they will be playing for real. For the first time in over 20 years, Northern will travel to Missoula to take on the vaunted University of Montana Lady Griz, in a game that will count for Montana. And although MSU-N is a huge underdog Saturday night, Skylights head coach Chris Mouat is relishing the opportunity and he hopes his players will too. "This is a tremendous opportunity for our program," Mouat said. "A lot of little girls in this state dream of playing basketball one day for the Lady Griz, even some of my players now probably wanted to play for them at one time. So in Montana, this is what it's all about. "We are well aware of how good they are," he added. "Coach Selvig is a legend, not just in Montana, but in all of the coaching profession, and I'm honored to be coaching in a game against him. It's something I've always wanted to do. But we are also looking forward to playing against a team of this caliber. We just have to enjoy the opportunity and go out there and take our best shot at them." And for the Skylights (6-7), even taking their best shot won't be easy. The Lady Griz are coming off yet another Big Sky championship and NCAA tournament berth last season, and already this year, they have compiled an 8-2 overall record against an impressive nonconference schedule. Included in that was a come-from-behind win over the University of Denver on Wednesday night. Selvig also reached the 700-win plateau this season, a truly remarkable feat. And if all that isn't intimidating enough, UM has great players, too. The Lady Griz go as their backcourt goes, and it starts with 2007-08 NCAA All-American Mandy Morales, already arguably one of the greatest players to ever play at Montana. And for good measure, fellow senior Sonya Rogers is as good a ball handler and shooter as there might be in the Big Sky Conference. Together, Morales and Rogers were the top-scoring guard tandem in the Big Sky last season, and they have showed no signs of slowing down so far this year. Montana also has good size with allconference performers Tamara Guardipee (6-2) and Brittany Lohman (6-1), as well as swing guard-forward Lauren Beck (6-0), another dangerous shooter who can also go inside with her size. And that's just their starters. The Lady Griz are also deep with a group of talented newcomers coming off the bench. UM is an outstanding rebounding team, and what will make life difficult for Northern is the fact that Selvig's teams are always among the best in the NCAA defensively. "What can you say, they are just so talented from top to bottom," Mouat said. "They have great guards, they shoot the ball well, the play great defense and they don't make many mistakes because they are so well-coached. "We are going to have to go out there, try and play great defense, which we have been doing this season, try to limit them to one shot on each possession and hope that we can use that to get out and create some offense. We're going to have to rebound extremely well, and we'll need some breaks too. If those things don't happen, we could be in for a really long night. But that's what is so great about this opportunity. We get a chance to take on one of the premier programs in the country in a great venue. I know our kids are excited and they'll be ready to play." And the Skylights will compete. Northern may not match up well, especially in the backcourt with young guards Taylor Keller and Samm Schermele going up against the likes of Morales and Rogers. But the Skylights do play a physical brand of basketball and tough defense, led by 6-3 center Stacie Barker in the middle and three-guard Kaylee Shaw on the wing. And in Northern's two wins earlier this week in the Duck Inn Corporation Classic in Havre, the Skylights shot the ball at a high percentage. If they can do that again, and defend the Grizzlies at all costs, Montana may be the ones having their hands full on Saturday night. "No matter what happens we want to know that we'll improve as a team from this," Mouat said. "This game will make us better, I truly believe that. We are going down there to play as hard as we can, take our best shot at a great basketball team and see what happens. And we're very excited about the chance to play Montana on their home floor. It's going to be a lot of fun for our kids, a lot of fun for me, and for our fans and our program too." Saturday night's game between MSU-N and the Lady Griz will tip off at 7 p.m. in Missoula.