George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor email@example.com
Taking things week to week, taking them one game at a time is very clich. But it’s also a wise strategy in the Frontier Conference. And in doing that, there’s no bigger week on the Montana State University- Northern Lights schedule than the one that starts tonight at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse. Tonight, the Lights (3-2, 14-6) will look to bounce back from their loss to UM-Western last Saturday in Dillon when they take on the No. 13 Carroll College Fighting Saints at 8. And that’s only one half of a huge doubleheader for the Lights. Saturday, league upstart Rocky Mountain College comes to town to do battle with the Lights. “If you stop and really think about just how good our league is, if you worry about how tough the coming weeks are going to be, you’ll drive yourself crazy,” MSU-N head coach Shawn Huse said. “The thing for us to focus on right now is to not worry about what other teams are doing in the other games. We have to worry about each game that’s in front of us. “These are two huge challenges for us this weekend,” Huse added. “We look at it as this is our chance to play a great Carroll team on our home floor and when that’s over, we’ll turn our attention to Rocky, another very good team coming in here. That’s the way we have to approach it right now because there’s so much parity in this league. We have to be prepared for the highs and lows, and everyone has already proven that anybody can beat anybody on a given night in this league. That’s how tough it is.” And this weekend will be another prime example of that. The Saints (5-1, 19-2) come into tonight’s game trying to snap a threegame losing skid in Havre. Carroll has played at a superb level for most of the season, and the Saints lone conference loss came by way of a two-point defeat in Helena to then No. 1 Westminster. And to prove just how tough the Frontier is, RMC, Northern’s opponent on Saturday took Carroll to double overtime two weeks ago, and knocked off the No. 1 Griffins in Billings last Saturday. But for now, the Lights are focused on the Saints and Bears for different reasons. MSU-N comes into tonight’s game tied for second in the Frontier with the Bears. Carroll and Westminster have a one game lead on the Lights and RMC. “Carroll is such a well-rounded team,” Huse said. “I’m sure coach (Gary) Turcott would be the first to tell you they are not the most athletic or the most talented team in our league. But at the same time, they run their stuff as well and execute as well, if not better than anybody else in our conference. They are a poised group, they have weapons at every spot on the floor, they are balanced, they play tough defense and they do all the little things right. That makes them a pretty tough matchup for anybody and we know we’re going to have to be at our very best to beat them.” Offensively, Carroll and Northern get things done in many different ways. The Lights come into the weekend with the No. 3 and No. 4 scorers in the Frontier in Chris Johnson and Travis Noble. Together the senior duo averages nearly 39 points per game. Clay Greenland has been Northern’s most consistent scorer on the inside, but the Lights get a lot of scoring from the outside, as well as the multi-dimensional Andrew Sellars. Meanwhile, the Saints are balanced on offense, with as many as nine players averaging eight points or higher. Carroll’s leading scorer, 6-5 true freshman Andy Garland of Missoula Sentinel leads the team at 15 points per game. But Carroll has four players averaging between 12 and 15 points. Senior point guard Chad Vaculin, junior forward Chris Medina and senior guard Josh Saunders all average in double figures, while the Saints also get plenty Of production inside from centers Zach Parks and Chris Kaschmitter. “They (Saints) are tough to guard,” Huse said. “You can’t leave anybody open or they will make you pay. I think it starts with Vaculin. He’s their point guard and a three-year starter. They kind of feed off him. Then Andy Garland is playing like a senior who has been in this league a long time. So they are just a tough all-around matchup and they play mistake-free basketball it seems. So we know we have our hands full.” But the Lights can take some confidence into tonight’s huge battle with the Saints. Northern has beaten Carroll in two of its last three meetings, including a convincing win over the Saints in last year’s Frontier semifinals in Butte. However, tonight’s game is against a different Carroll team, and the Lights know they are facing one of the top teams in all of NAIA basketball. And as critical as tonight’s game with the Saints is, Saturday’s night’s tilt with RMC might be even bigger. The Bears are arguably the league’s hottest team right now. RMC (3-2, 14-6) is coming into tonight’s game at the University of Great Falls fresh off a sweep of Westminster and Lewis-Clark State, and there is perhaps no one playing at a higher level right now than the Bears. “Rocky has proved time and time again this season just how capable they are,” Huse said. “They are as impressive as any team in our league and they are as athletic and long as any one out there. They have size, speed and athleticism, and sometimes they make you feel small and slow out there. That’s how good they are.” Rocky came into this season with two of the best players in the conference in senior center Devin Uskoski and guard Chase Sukut. Together the duo averages 35 points per game and Uskoski leads the league in rebounding at 11 per game, the third straight season he’s done that. He’s also among the nation’s leaders in field goal percentage. But the Bears have added a wealth of new talent including 5-6 point guard Nate Richardson and 6-5 swingman James Bulluck. In all, RMC head coach Bill Dreikosen will go 10 to 11 deep during a given game, and all of his Bears can play on both ends of the floor. Like Carroll, RMC also comes into Havre looking to avenge a difficult loss to the Lights last season. And as well as the Bears are playing, Huse and his Lights will be on high alert. “Rocky will throw a lot of different looks at us because of their depth,” Huse said. “They start with Uskoski, a great player and another big man inside, and then they’ll go a little smaller and quicker. They throw a lot of looks at you defensively, and they will get up and down the floor. “For us, the key to both games this weekend is playing really smart basketball on each possession on both ends of the floor. We’ve done that for the most part this season, and we’ll have to do it at another level this weekend because of the teams we are facing. These are two big tests for our team, but we’re looking forward to getting these two great teams on our home floor. It’s going to be a lot of fun.” This weekend’s huge Frontier Conference games in Havre start tonight at 8 with the Lights and Saints. On Saturday night at 8, Northern will take on RMC.