By Harvey Brock
The Lady Bulldogs broke open a close game in the second half with a 10-0 run, stretching their lead to 14, and held off a late Skylights rally Thursday night to win 63-56.
The game came down to too many firsts for the Skylights: the first game back from their boycott, first game under a new head coach, Mike Erickson's first game as a college head coach, Erickson's first time ever coaching female players, the first time the Skylights had ever played before ESPN cameras, and most likely the first time they had ever received a standing ovation after a home loss.
Standing in the way, after those obstacles, was the No. 3 team in the country, the University of Montana Western Lady Bulldogs, who are undefeated in conference play.
The Skylights showed signs of rust in the first half, committing 10 turnovers, and shooting only 30 percent from the floor. Western meanwhile pounded the ball in to All-American forward Bobbi Suhr, who led the Bulldogs with 20 points. At the end of the first half the Western led 24-20.
With five minutes gone in the second half, Western showed why they're the No. 3 team, scoring 10 unanswered points over the next four minutes to lead 50-34. MSU-N players appeared sluggish during Western's run but caught their second wind. Stepping up their defensive intensity, the Skylights cut the lead to only seven with six minutes to go. However Northern would get no closer as Western showed poise worthy of their ranking for a 9-point win.
Western coach Kevin Engellant knew his team was in for a tough fight. "Northern is a good team. I thought it was important for us to get off to a good start. We knew Northern would play with a lot of emotion, and it was important for us to have a lead. They're as good as any team in the league, and we knew they were going to make a run at us."
Skylight Coach Mike Erickson thought it took a little while for him and his team to get comfortable. "The team and I are still getting used to each other. I got more comfortable as the game went on. It helped having assistant coach Joan Steffen on the bench. She has been a great help to me in the transition. I thought we showed signs of rust, 10 turnovers in the first half and didn't shoot well. We also tired a little in the second half. We took some timeouts just to catch our breath."
Erickson became interim head coach this week after MSU-N won its legal battle to have women's basketball coach Kevin Emerick suspended from his job. Toward the end of the legal dispute, the Skylights boycotted playing for Emerick for six days.
"We played better in the second half," Erickson said. "We cut our turnovers down to four. We really picked it up defensively in the last eight minutes, and took them out of their sets. Tamecia Watson played well defensively, and had a good overall game. Had I known the team could play that kind of pressure defense, I would have turned them loose sooner."
Skylight Tamecia Watson said she was happy to be back on the court and playing for Coach Erickson.
"He did a spectacular job coaching. I felt very comfortable playing for him. We got a little tired before catching our second wind. It is hard to keep your wind and rhythm without organized practices.
"Coach told us not to get down. He told us to keep our heads up, we'll come together, and there is a lot of season left," she said.