By Jason Shoot
The setting may be the same this year, but the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team hopes for much different results at the Frontier Conference tournament in Lewiston, Idaho, this weekend.
A year removed from getting eliminated before the weekend even started, this year's Skylights (10-4, 23-6) are poised to make a run at the tournament title and secure an automatic berth in the NAIA national tournament.
The Skylights will first face seventh-seeded Great Falls, which earned just two victories out of 14 conference games and are 9-20 overall. The two teams will meet today at approximately 3:30 p.m.
Northern, ranked 11th in the nation in the most recent NAIA Division I top-25 poll, is riding a six-game winning streak that helped the Skylights surge to second place in the conference's final standings.
The Skylights have all but assured themselves of a national tournament berth, but winning the conference tournament title would not only guarantee advancing to the national tournament, but would certainly improve the team's seeding in that tournament.
Northern forward Lana Quintyne finished the regular season leading the conference in scoring at 18.4 points per game, but the Skylights now have an additional go-to player in senior forward Abby Hjorth, who has had an offensive explosion in the second half of the season.
Hjorth is averaging 12.9 points a game and was recently named the conference's player of the week.
Great Falls is led by Deena Wisniewski, who averages 10 points a game. Post player Verna Hugs has recorded 28 blocked shots this year.
Lewis-Clark State (12-2, 27-3) is the tournament host after cruising to the Frontier regular-season championship. The Warriors, ranked fifth in the nation, went 7-0 at home during the regular season, outscoring opponents by an average of 35 points in Warrior Gymnasium.
Outside of Lewis-Clark State and the Skylights, Western Montana is likely the other top favorite to claim a tournament title.
The Bulldogs have a terrific tandem of interior players with Bobbi Suhr and Misty Covington, as well as a perimeter threat in Julie Sherrill. Suhr and Covington are the top two shooters in the league 68.3 and 58.3 percent, respectively and are second and third in scoring in the Frontier.
Western Montana has also defeated Lewis-Clark State once this year and was responsible for eliminating the Skylights and Warriors from last year's tournament.
In the tournament's other first-round games, No. 3 seed Western Montana battles No. 6 seed Rocky Mountain at 1:30 p.m., No. 4 seed Westminster plays No. 5 seed Carroll at 7 p.m., and No. 1 seed Lewis-Clark State the tournament host plays No. 8 seed Montana Tech at approximately 9:30 p.m.