Frontier Conference men’s basketball games don’t get any bigger than when the Montana State University-Northern Lights play host to the Westminster Griffins.
They don’t get any bigger that is, unless the conference championship is at stake, as was the case in Northern’s dramatic 64-58 win over the Griffins Friday night at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse.
The Lights needed a win over Westminster in order to set up having a chance to claim at least a share of the regular season Frontier title on Saturday night – and that’s exactly what happened.
But as is always the case against the Griffins, a win wouldn’t come easy.
“That’s a team that just put up 95 points at Lewis-Clark State last week,” Northern head coach Shawn Huse said. “So we knew coming in what the challenges were. But we also felt like we had a good game plan for them and the guys went out and executed it to near perfection.”
The first half was key for the Lights against Westminster.
Northern grabbed an early 8-4 lead behind some strong inside play from Joe Simpson. Then the Lights gave themselves some separation by going on an 8-0 run late in the half behind 3-pointer from Ben Mitchell, who had an outstanding game off the bench, and Shaun Tatarka.
Northern led 33-32 and while there was no doubt the Griffins would make a second-half run, the first half was big in the end.
“The coaches gave us a great game plan,” Tatarka said. “And I think we played really good basketball in the first half and that gave us some confidence. We know Westminster is a good team and we knew the game was by no means over in the second half. But we also felt like we had our legs under us in the second half and that was big. We were ready for them to make a run and we kept playing good, hard defense in the second half because we weren’t tired. That was big I think.”
And the Griffins did make several runs at Northern in the second half, but the Lights resisted every one. Senior Michael Stockton and sophomore Jake Orchard both made crucial plays to keep the Griffins in the contest. Westminster even got as close as 55-51 with 1:21 to play, but big rebounds from Mitchell and Chris Brown, as well as a big driving layup from Devin Jackson and key free throws from Tatarka, Mitchell and LaVon Myers allowed the Lights to hold on for the win over the No. 16 Griffins.
“This was a total team win,” Huse said. “Ben Mitchell and Chris Brown did a great job off the bench as did David Maddock, and all of our starts made big plays one way or the other all night.
“It’s no secret we love to shoot the three,” he added. “But this was one game where we went inside first. Against a great defensive team like Westminster, you have to take what they give you, so we decided to take advantage and attack the rim and it worked. Joe Simpson had a great game, and overall, our entire team executed our game plan almost flawlessly. Westminster is a great team and the score really won’t indicate how hard-fought that game was. So I’m really proud of the way our guys came out and executed on both ends against them.”
Simpson led the Lights by way of a double-double, 16 points and 10 rebounds. He also played outstanding defense all night on Westminster’s Orchard and Tanner Gregory. Northern also got 10 points and seven boards from Mitchell, as well as 10 more points from Tatarka. The Griffins, who went on to lose in double overtime at UGF on Saturday night, were led by Orchard’s game-high 19 points.
The win on Friday night gave the Lights and Huse their fifth straight 20-win season, and set up Saturday night’s dramatic showdown with LC State, which eventually led to Northern’s co-championship with Carroll. The Lights also shared the league title during the 2007-08 season.
And none of it would have been possible without Friday’s hard-fought win over the Griffins.
“This was a big step for us,” Tatarka said of Friday night’s home win. “Ben Mitchell and Sean Kelly played huge for us, the whole team really stepped up. And that’s what you have to do against Westminster. They don’t make many mistakes, so your whole team has to be on the same page and we were tonight. It was a great, team win.”
Northern will now host Rocky Mountain College in the first round of the Frontier playoffs on Wednesday night at 7 p.m.