The Montana State University-Northern men’s basketball team has been as successful as any Frontier Conference men’s program inside the border of Montana over the last nine years.
And that success was never more evident than on Saturday night at the MSU-Northern Fieldhouse, as the Lights beat UM-Western 72-60 in the conference semifinals in front of capacity crowd. The semifinal win was something only one other Lights’ team in Huse’s nine years at Northern had been able to do. The Lights crushed Carroll College in the semifinals of the old Frontier Tournament back in 2008 in Butte. And given the fact Northern was 0-2 the last two years in the semis, Saturday night’s win could be categorized as one of the biggest in school history, at least in the last decade.
But as good as the Lights have been the last nine years, Northern has six 20-win seasons under Huse, a Frontier postseason title has eluded them. And with the win over the Bulldogs on Saturday, the Lights jumped one big hurdle, and they’ll hope to jump another on Tuesday night in Helena when they face arch rival Carroll for a third time this season.
“We’re not satisfied until we’re in the championship game, until we give ourselves a chance to win the championship game,” Northern forward Joe Simpson, who scored 19 points on Saturday night said recently. “We enjoy every win, but we’re on a mission and we won’t be satisfied until we’re in that game.”
Now the Lights are in it, and they won’t be satisfied with just making the three-hour drive to the capitol city on Tuesday night. This Northern team has already made history, and they are ready to make more, even if history isn’t on either team’s side.
In the last nine years, few of the Frontier’s charter Montana schools have captured a postseason championship. That’s because Westminster and Lewis-Clark State have dominated the Frontier’s postseason since joining the league a decade ago. In Northern’s only appearance in the championship game under Huse, the Lights lost a heartbreaker to the Warriors, 65-63 in 2008 in Butte. And it’s something that while none of these Lights were a part of, they are ready to remedy this season.
“It’s different now than when we played for the championship in 2008,” Huse said. “That was at the tournament in Butte. But we had a chance to win that game and we let it slip away. So it’s very exciting and gratifying to have a chance to it this year, especially with this team, because they have been so great to work with this year. But it’s also different because it’s a playoff system, so we’re going on the road to play in a tough environment. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us, but one I know every guys on this team is excited about and looking forward to. And so am I. I just couldn’t be happier for this team, this program and our fans right now. It’s a very exciting time for Northern basketball.”
And that excitement was capped off by the Lights and their fans blowing the roof off their own gym in Saturday’s thrilling win over Western. Now, Northern is one win a way from the one achievement which eluded the ultra-successful program for so long – a Frontier Conference championship.
“This was a huge win for us,” junior Shaun Tatarka said in regards to the Lights’ semifinal win. “Western is a great team and we knew this was going to be a big challenge for us tonight. So to beat a great team like this and have a chance to play for the championship, it means a lot. To get over this hump so to speak, it means a lot to us. And we’re looking forward to the opportunity to go to Carroll and play them at their place.”
The Lights and Carroll are both likely already in the NAIA field of 32, but the winner of Tuesday night’s game will get the Frontier’s lone automatic berth to the national tourney, while the loser will have to wait a few days for an automatic bid. The Lights last went to Kansas City in 2009, while Carroll last made the trip in 2008. Ironically, Carroll was selected over Northern the year the Lights lost to LC State in the Frontier championship game.
Tuesday night’s title game between the Lights and Saints tips off at 7 p.m. at the Carroll College P.E. Center in Helena.
Game Notes: The Lights may have only made three 3-pointers on Saturday night, but they still shot an astounding 61 percent from the field in the second half and 52 percent from the floor for the game. Brown has now scored 54 points in two games in Havre this season. The Lights and Bulldogs are now 4-4 against each other in their last eight meetings. Northern and Carroll split their regular season meetings with the Saints winning 56-47 on Feb. 19 in Helena. The Saints beat Westminster by 10 points Saturday night to reach Tuesday’s finale. Both Carroll and Northern are likely secure as far as getting at-large bids to the national tournament, despite who wins on Tuesday. An estimated 3,400 fans packed the Armory Gymnasium on Saturday night to watch the Lights for the final time at home this season.