The Montana State University-Northern Lights won a Frontier Conference championship and went to the NAIA national tournament in March of 2011. Yet, everything about that experience was brand new for the Lights.
Last season saw Northern play with no returning starters, nine new players on the roster and a team which had only met each other in August of 2012. So when the Lights reached the pinnacle of success, beating Carroll College in Helena for the Frontier title, then traveling to Kansas City for the national tournament a week later, it was an experience unlike any the players on that team had ever had.
That experience however, didn’t end how the Lights were hoping as Northern suffered an 11-point loss to Biola University in the first round in Kansas City. It was bitter-sweet, because the Lights knew they were good enough to further, yet they were happy to have made the trip in the first place considering they were a brand new team with no seniors, and only playing together for less than a calendar year.
Now, as the Lights embark on the first round of 2012 national tourney, tonight against No. 15 Seed Columbia College, nothing is new, except for Northern’s mindset. A year removed from the loss to Biola, Northern will go into tonight’s game with every player back from last year’s roster, eight seniors and with the experience of a national tourney trip under its belt.
“Last year, we went down there (Kansas City) hoping to win. We went there to compete, but we were pretty happy with just making it that far,” MSU-N senior LaVon Myers said. “I think we have a completely different mindset this time around. We expected to get this far. We are going to enjoy the experience again, and we’re thankful for the opportunity, but this team around we’re going to make sure we take care of business.
“Last year were just hoping we could win a game,” senior Ben Mitchell added. “This year, we’re expecting to win games. Yes, games as in plural. We’re playing our best basketball right now, we’ve come a long way since last season and we believe we can compete with anybody in this tournament.”
And the Lights do have a different confidence as they head towards their showdown with Columbia. After all, Northern racked up a school record 27 wins this season and responded to a rare three-game losing streak with seven straight wins leading into tonight’s contest at Municipal Auditorium.
And though the Lights were truly great a season ago, this year, they want that greatness to culminate with a deep run in Kansas City. And they believe they can do it.
“We were focused last year at the tournament, but I don’t think we were sure of what we were up against,” Northern senior forward Sean Kelly said. “I think this time around, we’re more focused on the task at hand and not just with the entire trip and everything that goes with it. We have a lot more experience now. We understand that to win in this tournament, you have to play at another level. So we’re focusing on nothing but this first opponent and on playing our style of basketball. That’s all we’re focused on this time around.
“We have a lot more experience than we did a year ago,” senior Jordan Harris added. “All of last season, and especially at the national tournament, we just didn’t know what to expect. Everything was new to us, and sometimes we responded that way. This year, we’ve been through everything, we’ve been in a lot of tight games against a lot of quality teams. And we’ve been in this situation as a group (national tourney) before. All of that experience gives us confidence and is going to help us out a lot.”
And that focus, that confidence, that determination has been on Northern’s mind since the final seconds ticked off the clock in its loss to Biola a year ago. It’s that focus which got MSU-N to a school-record number of wins, a repeat as Frontier postseason champions, and it’s what got them to tonight’s game with the Cougars.
Now the team is hoping that focus and resolve will carry them past the first round and beyond, something a Northern men’s team hasn’t done since 1995.
“Last year, I think this team, being so new, and young, had premonitions of what it was going to be like at the national tournament,” head coach Shawn Huse said. “And sometimes, dealing with all that can throw you off a little and we certainly didn’t play our best game against Biola. This year, all that stuff is way easier to put aside and just focus on Columbia, focus on playing Northern basketball on Wednesday night.
“Also, we have a lot of seniors on this team who realize they are getting close to their last games of their Northern careers,” he added. “That fear of it being over can really focus a team and it can be a motivating factor. This is a very hungry group and they don’t want this to end. They have really been focused on nothing but this game, really since we cut the nets down after beating Western. That’s what a veteran group does.”
A veteran group ready to make a statement at the national tournament. Like last year, the Light shave relished in and enjoyed the success they’ve achieved in 2011-12. But the difference is two-fold. First, the Lights expected to have this success this time around. And second, they can brush off what happened yesterday and move on to the next task.
In other words, these Lights are on a mission.
“We’ve been determined all season long,” junior Devin Jackson said. “We’ve had one main goal and that’s to get back to Kansas City and prove ourselves. We have a whole different mentality this season. We’re on a mission.
“Everything we’ve done this season has been a blessing and we’ve enjoyed it,” senior Joe Simpson added. “Having the championship game at home, beating Western, having the amazing community support and the great fans we have, it’s all been a blessing.
“But we have more basketball left to play,” he added. “We’ve enjoyed this run and we’ve taken it all in. But we have more to do. That’s our mindset right now. We’re moving on to something bigger. We want to go down there (Kansas City) and show the whole country what we can do. Show them what Northern basketball is all about. And that’s what we’re focused on. That’s what we’re going to do.”