By Ryan Divish
It wasn't just a basketball game. It was a clash between styles. Size versus speed, height against hustle and in the end size won out. The University of Lethbridge used its size advantage inside to pick up a pair of wins over the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team on Friday and Saturday at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
But size didn't win easily. On Friday night, the Skylights were in position to win the game. Trailing 76-75 with :03 remaining, Skylights head coach Mike Erickson called a timeout to set up a play for a last second shot.
The play worked as Nichole Neill got open to take a 16-foot jump shot. However, Lethbridge's Anita Demenzes either got a piece of the ball, or a piece of Neill's arm as time expired.
"We did get a pretty good look," was all Erickson would say of the play.
There did appear to be contact on the play, and Neill immediately looked toward the referee looking for a foul on the play. But there would be no whistle.
Despite the controversy, Erickson was still pleased with how his team responded down the stretch.
"We showed pretty good poise for it being the first game of the season," he said.
Three consecutive baskets inside by Demenzes and a free throw from Heidi Somerville gave Lethbridge a 74-72 lead with :41 remaining. But Northern responded, as Neill made a nifty pass inside to Lindsey Buehler, who made a tough layup and drew a foul. Buehler made the free throw, converting three-point play, and gave Northern a 75-74 lead.
Lethbridge answered as Somerville hit a tough jump shot to give her team back the lead with :16 left in the game.
Following the shot, Northern took the ball down court, but didn't call timeout. The timeout came after a pass was tipped and a mad scramble for the ball ensued. Erickson admitted he was yelling for the timeout hoping that the referees would call it early giving Northern the ball. Erickson got the timeout, but the referees called it right after Buehler gained possession of the ball wide open underneath the basket.
"That was a tough play," Erickson said. "I was just hoping to keep the ball, and Lindsey winds up with a wide-open shot."
What was even tougher was the post play of the Pronghorns. Lethbridge got 46 of its 76 points from its post players, and outrebounded Northern 36-26, including 11 offensive rebounds.
Demenezes finished with a game-high 23 points and 12 rebounds while Jamie Tschritter added 15 points.
"Their post play was so tough," Erickson said. "They were not only tall, but physically strong. Demenzes finishes everything inside."
Miranda Valley led the Skylights with 18 points while Anna Bateman and Davina Shoemake added 17 and 10 points, respectively.
It was a tough loss to open the season and the weekend. But any thoughts of a letdown on Saturday were erased early. Northern answered every Pronghorn score when they did score. Erickson challenged his team to hold Lethbridge to under 55 points for the game and it looked like they would be up to it.
Northern's full-court pressure forced a wealth of turnovers and limited Lethbridge from working the ball inside. But the Skylights had their own problems offensively. After missing a handful of layups early, Northern's offense grew stagnant. But the Skylights sank 10 of 12 free throws in the first half to take a 28-26 halftime lead.
After scoring only five points in the first half, Demenzes picked it up in the second half. Demenzes and teammate Sherri Webster ignited the sputtering Pronghorn offense. The duo combined for 24 second-half points while all four of Webster's assists set Demenzes inside. It was too much for Northern to overcome. But the Skylights didn't concede the game.
Webster's two free throws with under a minute remaining gave Lethbridge a 58-50 lead. But a pair of Brettney Vermandel free throws and a Bateman three cut the lead to three. But Somerville made one of two free throws and Northern's desperation shots were off, giving Lethbridge a 59-55 victory.
Demenzes finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds. Webster scored 14 points off the bench and Angie Thompson added 13.
Valley was the only player for the Skylights in double figures with 14 points.
Although they didn't quite hold the Pronghorns under 55 points, Erickson was still pleased with the defensive effort.
"We made some adjustments and the girls responded," Erickson said.
Northern forced 32 turnovers in Saturday night's game, but they didn't lead to many points.
"We didn't capitalize on the turnovers and finish our easy shots," Erickson said. "I'd be upset if this was March and we were making those mistakes. But it's still early in the season and we're still trying to get used to each other."
It was a moral victory of sorts for Northern. Lethbridge had a solid team and Skylights were in position to win both games.
"Our inexperience showed a little bit," Erickson said. "Lethbridge is going to be one of the better teams we play in this part of the season."
But as with most first games, Erickson still found plenty to work on this coming week at practice.
"We need to buy into our full-court defense," Erickson said. "Our best offense will be our full-court defense. We have to control the tempo. It's going to take some time, but it's a learning process."
The Skylights will now embark on a massive road swing that sees them playing away from Havre for almost the entire month of November.