George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor email@example.com
If Wednesday evening was going to the last time the Montana State University- Northern Lights played basketball this season, they certainly made it entertaining. Northern dropped a heartbreaking 76-73 decision to eighth-seeded Robert Morris College in overtime Wednesday in the first round of the NAIA men's basketball tournament in what was one of the most dramatic games of the first day of play in Kansas City. The Lights saw the Eagles go on an 11-0 run in the final four minutes to erase an MSU-N seven-point lead and go ahead by four points with just :36 left in regulation. But a pair of stunning 3-pointers gave the Lights life, including a three by freshman Mark Henkel as time expired to send the game into overtime. However, the Eagles responded again in the extra frame, scoring the first six points of the period, and the Lights, who were hampered by foul trouble at that point, never fully recovered. "It was pretty simple, we got everything we wanted and did what we needed to do to win the game, except rebound off missed free throws at the end, or make two or three more shots when we had a late lead which probably would have put the game away for good," MSU-N head coach Shawn Huse said. "But give our kids a lot of credit. They had a very talented team, a team that can go pretty far in this tournament on the ropes, and they really showed a lot of heart and character for never quitting and getting that game into overtime. I'm really proud of them for that." Henkel's three was part of a big night for the freshman from Missoula. Playing his most minutes of the season, Henkel made several big shots and handled the point position in many cases as the Lights faced a frantic full-courtpress by Robert Morris in the final minutes of regulation. The press did force Northern into several critical turnovers, aiding in the Eagles' late run to take the lead. But Henkel played admirably down the stretch. "They (Eagles) were able to turn it up a notch when they really needed too," Huse said. "That has been the way they play from what I understand, they play a little bit of cat and mouse with you. But when they needed it, they pressed us and we made some bad mistakes with the ball. And that really hurt us when we had chances to put them away. "But hats off to Mark Henkel," he added. "Not only did he make big shots for us, but he was under tremendous pressure from their press and he did a great job. He had a great game for us." Robert Morris' ability to turn things up to another level showed at the freethrow- line as well. The Eagles were an abysmal 19-of-39 from the foul line for the game, but they went 9-for-11 in overtime, and they needed all of them to put the Lights away. Robert Morris outscored Northern 16-13 in the extra frame, but the Lights were playing catch up from the start. Northern also had to play catch up in the first half. Robert Morris got several easy layups to start the game and led 12-4 early on. But Northern ripped off a 14-0 run late in the half, sparked by back-to-back three's from Travis Noble and Chris Johnson to take a 30-23 lead into halftime. Robert Morris also committed 15 turnovers and missed a ton of foul shots in the first half. However, the Eagles went on a 9-0 run early in the second seemingly regaining the momentum. Northern had trouble all game stopping the Eagles from scoring on the inside, and Robert Morris' 51 percent shooting in the second half was aided by that fact. Still, the Lights didn't go away. Johnson and Andrew Sellars each hit a three inside the eight-minute mark and Northern took a lead deep into the game. The Lights led by seven points with 4:06 to go but wouldn't score again for almost four minutes, setting up the Eagles' late-game heroics and Northern's dramatic finish in regulation. "We did a really good job of letting a sleeping giant lie for about 35 minutes," Huse said. "We played pretty well for that amount of time. But they woke up eventually and we just didn't respond, we just didn't handle their press well enough and we didn't make enough shots when we needed them to put the game away. But I'm still really proud of the way we didn't quit even under that kind of adversity. That's our team, they play hard from the opening tip to the final buzzer and I'm proud of them for that." Johnson scored a game-high 23 points while adding eight rebounds and five assists for the Lights. Noble added 19 points in his final outing in a Northern uniform and Henkel chipped in with 10. Together, the trio hit 10 of the Lights' 11 three's with Johnson leading the way with five. Billy Rush and Kenny Page led the Robert Morris offensive attack with 19 points each. Reggie Bunch and White added 16 and 12 points, respectively, while Jeff Wilson grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds. The Eagles (25-3) will play Tugaloo, Mississippi Friday morning in the second round. Tugaloo upset ninthseeded Fresno Pacific in the first round Wednesday afternoon. Northern's season ended with a 22- 10 record overall. And while the Lights had chances to move on in the tournament, Huse is nothing short of proud of what his team accomplished, not only on Wednesday, but all season long. "I'm really proud of this team," he said. "They did great things this year. I'm very proud of our seniors. They won a lot of games for Northern the last two years, they deserve a lot of credit for all of our success and we're really going to miss those guys. "This has been a great season for Northern basketball," he added. "This team achieved a lot of success and they did it together. Losing a game like this is a pretty tough pill to swallow, but they have nothing to be down about. I'm just very, very proud of this entire team."