Back on Jan. 19, the Montana State University-Northern women’s basketball team posted one of the all-time great defensive efforts, holding Montana Tech to just 41 points in a 54-41 win in Havre. In fact, for much of the year, the Skylights have been one of the top defensive teams in the NAIA, so that result should have come as a surprise to no one.
Now, Northern (6-4, 14-8), brings a three-game Frontier Conference winning streak into tonight’s rematch with the Orediggers in Butte. Tonight’s game is the first of two straight pivotal road games for MSU-N, which has won four of its last five games. The Skylights also travel to Carroll College Saturday night in Helena.
In its last three games, MSU-N has beaten Great Falls and Lewis-Clark State on the road, as well as Great Falls again last Friday night in Havre. And though Northern head coach Chris Mouat is fully aware of how daunting this weekend’s road trip will be, he says his team should feel very good about how it’s playing right now.
“I think the kids are confident right now,” Mouat said. “Winning helps out a lot of things and we’ve managed to put together some good wins lately. There are things we need to clean up. We need to be much more efficient at closing out games. We need to continue to be more efficient on offense and at the free-throw-line. Those are areas we have to continue to improve. But right now, I’m very pleased with where we’re at and we feel like we’ve improved quite a bit.”
MSU-N has improved by the numbers. The Skylights’ offensive production and its rebounding has risen dramatically in recent weeks. Senior Nikki Tresch continues to lead the team in scoring at 15 points per game, while she shoots 44 percent from 3-point range. Fellow senior Jordan Bruursema has also come in strong. In her last seven games she’s nearly averaged a double-double, and she’s scoring 12 points and grabbing six boards per night for the season. Veterans Laci Keller and Kylee Denham, both of whom have suffered injury problems this season, are combining to score 15 points and pull down 12 rebounds per game, while Kacie McKeon has been a huge spark of the bench in recent games.
And though Northern’s offense has been steadily improving, the Skylights hang their hat on defense, and that’s what makes this weekend’s road trip so interesting. MSU-N allows just 55 points per game, while Tech gives up 58 and Carroll matches Northern at 55 points per night. So this weekend could prove to be a defensive slugfest.
It starts tonight in Butte. The Orediggers (6-4, 13-9) will certainly be out for revenge when the Skylights come calling, but perhaps more important than revenge, is the fact Northern and Tech are tied for third in the Frontier standings. So, tonight’s game will have lasting playoff implications.
While Northern’s defense certainly stymied Tech three weeks ago in Havre, Mouat warns that the Diggers’ are too good to completely hold down. Tech is led by sophomore guard Mandy Machinal, who averages 16 points per game, which is second in the Frontier. Meanwhile, 6-2 forward Kelsey DeWit has always given MSU-N problems on the inside, while Danielle Devenny (6-0) and Laini Kumbi (5-8) combine to score 22 points per outing.
“Tech is good all over the floor,” Mouat said. “They have great post players, they have great shooting guards, they have quickness and they have athleticism. They are as complete a team as there is in this league. And right now, they are playing really well, and with a ton of confidence. So with how talented and dangerous they are, it goes to show how good of a defensive effort we really gave against them in Havre. And it’s going to take a similar effort on their floor to be successful.”
The sole focus is on Tech until tonight’s game is over, but then MSU-N quickly has to turn its attention to 25th-ranked Carroll (9-1, 15-6). The Saints gave Northern a tough defeat back on Nov. 29 in Havre, besting the Skylights 56-50. And while MSU-N has gotten better since that conference-opener, so have the Saints.
“We feel like we gave Carroll one of the closer games they’ve had this season,” Mouat said. “But they’ve continued to improve. They’ve maintained a really high level of play over the course of the year and right now, they’re playing really well.
“Carroll has all the weapons, they’re absolutely loaded,” Mouat added. “They can beat anybody on any given night, and when they get going offensively, they’re nearly impossible to slow down. They have two of the best outside shooters in the entire country, they have size, they rebound and they play great defense. So again, it’s going to take a big effort from our kids to have a chance, especially playing on their floor.”
The shooters Mouat mentioned are seniors Torrie Cahill (5-11) and Megan Patterson (5-11). Together, they average 28 points per game and shoot 43 and 42 percent from three, respectively. Carroll will also look inside to 6-3 Joey O’Neil so the Saints do indeed have it all.
And playing two athletic and explosive teams on the road, both of which also play great defense, seems like a tall order for the Skylights. However, Northern has been in this position before, just two weeks ago in fact, and the Skylights found a way to come away with two big wins. And that’s what they’ll try to do again.
“We know what’s at stake,” Mouat said. “We expect two great efforts from two great teams, and that’s what we have to give in return. These are big games. But then again, they all are in this league, and especially at this time of year.”
Tonight’s game between Northern and Montana Tech tips off at 5:30 in Butte. The Skylights take on Carroll at 5:30 p.m. Saturday night in Helena. MSU-N returns home to face UM-Western next Thursday and Westminster College next Saturday.