George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor email@example.com
Basketball practice began for the Montana State University-Northern Lights the first week of October. But as the Lights prepare to play their first NAIA tournament game in 11 years, taking on Robert Morris College today at 3:30 p.m., the 2008-09 season got under way well before the first day of practice. Last year, MSU-N captured a share of the Frontier Conference regular season championship and nearly did the same in the league tournament. But the Lights lost to Lewis-Clark State 65-63 in the conference championship game last March, and less than a week later, found out they were not invited to the NAIA tourney despite having one of the best season's in recent Northern history. It was on that day that the season began for the returning Lights, and although the national tournament was rarely mentioned over the course of the next year, it was always a driving force. "I'll never forget how I felt in the lockeroom after we lost to LC State last year," Northern senior Travis Noble said. "It was a horrible feeling, but it's also what motivated us this year. We started working on getting here through the summer, and right into this fall. We didn't really ever talk about it, but that feeling we had when we didn't get in last year was something that motivated this team all year." And it motivated the Lights to a stellar 23-win season, a share of second place in an even better Frontier Conference, their fifth straight trip to the Frontier semifinals, and of a course, a berth in today's NAIA men's tourney in Kansas City. But before Northern could make the trip to Kansas City, the Lights had to go through a few more of those horrible lockeroom moments. And both of them just happened to come in Billings after losses to Rocky Mountain College. MSU-N dropped a late-season fourpoint decision to the Bears, another NAIA at-large squad and a team the Lights battled neck-and-neck all season long. Then, the Bears broke open a close game in the Frontier semifinals and ran away from the Lights to advance to the title tilt. That loss came two weeks ago and it caused the Lights to wonder if all of their hard work and dedication towards getting what they didn't get a year ago was going all for not. "It was a helpless feeling after the last time we lost to Rocky," junior Andrew Sellars said. "We had a good idea we might still get in because of where we were ranked, but we just didn't know, and we had to wait to find out." Ultimately, the Lights were one of the 32 teams to make it to Kansas City and a win at Carroll College in the last game of the regular season might have saved Northern's chances. In the final poll, MSU-N dropped from 22 to 25, and the Lights wound up as the No. 11 atlarge team out of 13 at-large berths. "We felt a lot of relief and a lot of pride," senior Clinton Shelton said of Northern's bid to Kansas City. "We didn't talk every day about getting to the tournament, but it was something that we all were working towards together. We felt like we deserved it last year and we knew we had a good team again this year. So it's something we are all very proud of and were excited about." And there were other emotions that came in to play in the announcement that the Lights had finally reached their ultimate goal. MSU-N's plight last season garnered plenty of attention last spring. The Lights were clearly one of the 32 best teams in the country yet the system left them out of the big show. And for departing seniors Delvaughn Tinned and Drew Pettersen, that was heartbreaking. And those guys were not far from the minds of the returning Northern players in their drive to reach the big dance this season. "This is for Delvaughn and Drew too," Shelton said. "Actually, we feel like this is for all the guys who have played here who never made it. This program has been really good under coach (Huse) and it's continuing to get better. We're just really proud we could take it to the next level and represent Northern like we have." And just how did the Lights do it? The Frontier arguably improved from last year to this one, and the Lights lost two double-digit scorers in Tinned and Pettersen. But Huse added an outstanding guard in senior Chris Johnson, as well as solid posts like Clay Greenland and Walynn Burgess and the Lights did three things as well as anybody in the Frontier this year they played defense, they shot the three, and perhaps most importantly, they played together. The Lights have played as a team from the first game to the last, their chemistry has been something special, and they've certainly had the kind of season every collegiate player dreams about. "Everybody who came back worked really hard to get to this point," Noble said. "And even though we lost some great players, coach added the pieces we needed and away we went. Nothing really changed. We played great defense this season and we went and played hard for 40 minutes every night. It's been a great year and all that we've done is paying off." Said Johnson: "This is the most together team I've played on since high school. I wasn't here last year, so I just had to listen to what happened to them last year, and try to feel what they felt. These guys took me in right away and treated me like part of the family. This is a close group on and off the floor and I think you can see it in the way we play. It's been amazing to be a part of this team, and I'm really proud that I could come in and do my part." And while the ride through the 2008- 09 season has been a memorable one for these Lights, it's not over yet. Northern gets its chance to take the season a step further when it steps on the floor against Robert Morris today at 3:30 M.S.T. at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. "We're going to enjoy this," Huse said. "We're excited to be playing in the national tournament and we're looking forward to seeing how far we can go. That's the objective, to just keep playing basketball. But these guys need to enjoy this. They've all worked extremely hard to get here and they deserve everything they are getting. I'm just really proud of this team and all that they have accomplished already." Today's first-round game between MSU-N and Robert Morris can be heard in Havre on 92.5 KPQX FM.