George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Last season, right or wrong, the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team was one of the last teams left out of the NAIA men's national basketball tournament. But one year later, the Lights are finally getting their chance to shine in Kansas City. On Wednesday afternoon, Northern and head coach Shawn Huse found out that the Lights were one of the 32 teams selected to the 2009 NAIA national tournament which gets under way Wednesday in Kansas City. The Lights (22-9) were one of 13 at-large selections to the tournament after they finished tied for second in the Frontier Conference regular season standings, lost to Rocky Mountain College last Saturday in the Frontier semifinals in Billings and finished ranked No. 25 in the last NAIA Poll. "It really hasn't sunk in just yet," Huse said. "It's kind of surreal. I'm just really happy for our players. Last year we came so close and to not get in was heartbreaking. So this is something we're very proud of and very excited about." Northern will be making its first trip to the national tournament in 11 years. The Lights last appeared in the NAIA's big dance in the 1997-98 season. At that time the Lights had gone to the NAIA tournament three out of four seasons in the 90's, and it looked as though the Lights were going to break that streak last year when they finished tied for the Frontier Conference regular season championship, then made it all the way to the Frontier title game, losing to Lewis-Clark State by two points in the title tilt. That left Northern on the bubble and the Lights found out a few days later they were not an at-large selection. "I think that certainly makes this even more special," Huse said. "We were so close last year. Losing to LC State like that was one of the toughest losses we've ever had. But to get in this season really justifies what these kids have done this year. In this conference, because it is so good from top to bottom, to get an at-large berth is a really difficult thing to do, so that really speaks to what kind of season this team has had and I'm really proud of that, and really happy for these kids. They made a commitment after last year to try and get to this point this season and they went out and earned this. They've worked hard to get to this point and I'm just really proud of them." The Frontier has three teams in this year's field. Westminster College (28-4) captured the league's automatic bid on Tuesday night when the Griffins upended Rocky Mountain College in Salt Lake City. The Griffins are making their ninth tournament appearance. RMC (23-9), ranked 21st in the final poll, also received an at-large berth and the Bears are making their third trip to the tourney this decade and their first as an at-large team. In fact, other than Carroll College, Northern and RMC this season are the only teams to gain at-large berths to the tournament in the years since Westminster and LC State joined the Frontier Conference, and no other Montana members have reached the tournament since the reformation of the league almost decade ago. The Lights will find out who their first-round opponent is this afternoon when the brackets are announced by the NAIA. The national tournament gets under way on Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City and runs through March 24. MSU-N will also find out when it plays this afternoon. MSU-N is making its fourth appearance in the national tournament and the Lights are 3-3 all time in national tournament games.