By Kim Staudinger
Emotional losses are never easy for a team and neither is coming back after such a loss and trying to get a win.
The Montana State University-Northern Lights knew that feeling all too well this weekend. The Lights (13-9, 2-4) lost a nailbiter Thursday 83-82 to Carroll College, but responded with an 84-80 win over Rocky Mountain College on Saturday night.
With three minutes remaining in the contest, the Lights were down by six and Rocky sensed its chances for an upset. But freshman Jeff Graham took matters into his own hands and drilled a three-pointer near the top of the key to cut the lead to 77-74.
The Rocky lead bounced back and forth between two and four points over the next minute and a half before Graham hit another three-point shot, giving the Lights an 81-80 lead with under one minute remaining.
"Jeff played well," Lights coach Brian Harrell said. "We needed Jeff to score. For him to come in and hit those threes was huge."
Northern's unforgiving defense took care of the rest as the Lights held the Bears scoreless for the final 55 seconds. Jermaine Walton sank two free throws with 23.6 seconds left and Jared Moultrie added one to give the Lights the four-point win.
"Rocky's better than people think," Harrell said. "They've lost a lot of close games like that one."
Rocky had its chances, getting the ball with under 10 seconds left and a chance to tie with a three-point basket, but the Bears lost control of the ball and turned it over to the Lights on a jump ball. The Bears then fouled Moultrie, sealing the deal for Northern.
Northern found itself down by 12 or more points eight different times in the first half, before making a comeback with under four minutes remaining. The small rally pulled the Lights to within five at the half, at 39-34.
"That has kind of been the story for us," Harrell said. "We get ourselves into a hole and have to battle like heck to get back into (the game). We've got to stop doing that."
Harrell also said a problem for his team has been putting together two strong games back to back, which may also explain the early deficit.
The Lights found themselves down by 10 again early in the second half, but an injury to Rocky's Ryan Eklund four minutes into the half forced the Bears to rely on other members of the team.
Harrell said Eklund's ankle injury, a bad sprain, hurt Rocky, especially since he had been shooting the ball so well from three-point range. Eklund did not return to the game and finished with 12 points all three-pointers.
Nearly three minutes after Eklund went down, the Lights showed power from beyond the arch. Uros Mirkovic hit consecutive three-point shots from the same spot on the floor, cutting Rocky's lead to 46-44. Moments later Graham hit his second three-pointer of the game, giving the Lights their first lead at 47-46.
After Rocky called a timeout and Josh Allen missed a three-pointer for the Bears, Spencer Lazosky drained a three-pointer to give Northern its biggest lead of the game at 50-46.
The Battling Bears battled back and took a four-point lead three minutes later, only to have the Lights charge back.
But the Bears weren't done yet.
As late as the 7:28 mark in the game, Rocky found itself up by five points, due mainly to back-to-back three-point baskets by Steve Johnson. The lead dwindled, but was back up to six with 2:58 left.
During that period, former KG standout Jake Stuart had two straight lay-ups to spark the Bears.
"Jake had his own cheering section," Harrell said. "It was good to see him play. He's a class act, a good student and on top of that, he's a great player. He's the kind of kid we'd like in our program and keep the Hi-Line kids at home."
After Stuart, who finished with 15 points, had his show, it was the other Hi-Line player's chance. Graham, from Chester, hit two three-pointers in the last three minutes of play to guide Northern to the win.
The Lights were without the services of starter E.J. Little for Saturday's game. Little broke a toe in Thursday's game against Carroll and will be out for about two weeks.
Without Little, Josh Hays was moved to the four position and Faheem Nelson got the start at the five. Hays was forced to guard a smaller player than he is used to and with Rocky being in zone defense Nelson had a tough time scoring under the basket.
Little's absence also meant more playing time for Northern's bench. Mirkovic and Lazosky each were thrown into difficult positions, Harrell said, but responded well.
"Uros had a great game," Harrell said. "He came in in the second half and really shut (Beau) McFadyean down. Spencer's been playing well. He's been playing well in practice and with E.J. getting hurt, he had to step it up and he did. He was the key to us being able to come back."
Rocky Eddie Stack 5, Sean Turner 2, Josh Allen 3, Jake Stuart 15, Marshaun Jourdan 9, Ryan Eklund 12, Beau McFadyean 21, Steve Johnson 11, Anthony Hutchinson 2.
Northern Jermaine Walton 9, Spencer Lazosky 18, Uros Mirkovic 13, Jeff Graham 19, K.C. Moultrie 4, Jared Moultrie 9, Josh Hays 12.