What a difference a week can make in the Frontier Conference.
Heading into Thursday night’s game at Lewis-Clark State, the Montana State University-Northern men’s basketball team was riding high, ranked No. 19 in the NAIA, sitting in first place in the league standings, and coming off a sweep of league powers Carroll College and RMC at home. But Northern lost by nine points at LC State on Thursday and things didn’t get any better two days later in Salt Lake City.
On Saturday night, the Lights fell to the No. 23 Westminster Griffins 55-44, and as a result, fell back into a four-way logjam in second place in the Frontier standings.
Like Thursday’s loss at LC State, Saturday’s loss to the Griffins came down to free-throws and missed shots. Westminster went to the free-throw-lien seemingly all night, while the Lights struggled to make perimeter shots for the third straight game. Northern, which came into the weekend as one of the top-five 3-point shooting teams in the NAIA, went just 3-of-14 from beyond the arc on Saturday night, and as a result, the Griffins were able to shorten the game and limit MSU-N’s chances at a comeback.
“The big difference is, they (Griffins) were able to get to the foul line quite a bit, and they made their free throws,” Northern head coach Shawn Huse said. “And we took a lot of three-point shots and we didn’t make many. That’s the difference. We know our defense is good, and we played well defensively again. Holding Westminster to 55 points is pretty good, especially at their gym. But there comes a point when you have to make shots and we didn’t do that on Saturday night.”
Indeed. The defensive struggle really showed its colors in the first half, as the Griffins led just 20-16 at intermission. But as the shots continued to not fall for the Lights, the Griffins slowly started to pull away. Northern went on a six-minute field goal drought in the second half, and during that time, the Griffins were able to open up a 20-point lead. The Lights narrowed the gap all the way down to eight points again, but it was too little, too late.
“You have to make shots to win games,” Huse said. “Defensively, I thought we were very good, I think we’ve proven throughout the year we are a very good defensive team. But we know offensively, we have to be better than we were this weekend. We are going through a little cold spell shooting the ball right now, and we just have to turn it around.”
Shaun Tatarka paced the Lights with 14 points, while Ben Mitchell came off the bench to score nine points. The Griffins, who are now alone in first place after a shaky start to league play, got 13 points each from Jake Orchard and Michael Stockton.
The road sweep dropped Northern to 4-3 in league play and 15-7 overall. The Lights are tied with LC State, UM-Western and Carroll for second place heading into this Saturday’s home game against Great Falls.
“It was a tough weekend,” Huse said. “But we also have to realize we still need to take this season one game at a time. So much has happened already in our league, that this weekend doesn't make or break our season. We just have to go get ready to win a game at home this weekend."
Westminster 55, Lights 44
MSU-N — Devin Jackson 6, Shaun Tatarka 14, LaVon Myers 6, Ben Mitchell 9, Jordan Harris 2, Chris Brown 2, Joe Simpson 5. Totals: 16-37 9-10.
WM — Jake Orchard 13, A.J. Reilly 5, Michael Stockton 13, Jordan Bjornberg 8, Tanner Gregory 10, Nick Hovda 3, Travis Tucker 3. Totals: 15-36 23-28.
Half: West 20-16. 3-pointers: MSUN 3-14 (Tatarka 2, Mitchell), West 2-8 (Hovda, Tucker). Rebounds: MSUN 19 (Tatarka 5, Jackson 5). West 27 (Stockton 9). Fouls: MSUN 21, West 11. Fouled out: None. Assists: MSUN 6 (Myers 3), West 7 (Tucker 2, Reilly 2). Turnovers: MSUN 13, West 11.