It’s been quite the start to the 2013-14 basketball season for the Montana State University-Northern Skylights. Picked to finish sixth in the Frontier Conference back in October, the Skylights reeled off 11 straight wins, and finished the non-conference schedule at 11-2.
Included in those 11 wins was a Frontier victory over mighty Carroll College, and Northern has ascended to the No. 24 team in the NAIA. So, the Skylights have built quite the resume so far. But now, it’s time to start over. Frontier play is here for good, and head coach Chris Mouat’s team begins league play with a pair of difficult road tests. Tonight, the Skylights are in Billings to face Rocky Mountain College, while MSU-N visits upstart Dickinson State Saturday night in Dickinson, N.D.
“We’re really happy with where we’re at right now,” Mouat said. “It’s very nice to be going into January already 1-0 in the conference. But now, you have to refocus. Everybody kind of starts with a clean state. It really is the second season, and it’s going to be a long grind.”
Tonight’s game is the first of two grinders for MSU-N. The Battlin’ Bears (0-1, 7-3) finished December playing at a very high level, and they will be tough for Northern to handle tonight.
“They (Bears) are lighting it up from the three,” Mouat said. “I think they’ve made double-digit 3-pointers in their last five, maybe six games. They shoot it really well, they have a number of kids who all can shoot it really well, and they play very, very fast.”
Senior guard Brittany Kumm is the unquestioned leader for the Bears, and she averages a team-high 14 points per game. But as good as RMC’s guard play is, the Bears can be tough in the interior, too. Mya Perrow-Donovan (6-0) and Katie Fitzpatrick give RMC a good inside presence to go along with the Bears’ talented shooters.
Of course, Northern will counter with the NAIA’s top-rated defense. MSU-N allows just 49 points per contest, and the Skylights are ranked in the Top 10 nationally in eight different defensive categories. Even in a pair of losses to upper-level Canadian teams last weekend in Las Vegas, the Skylights were outstanding defensively, and Mouat hopes that trend continues tonight, and Saturday night in Dickinson.
“In both games, we’ll have to defend the three, defend the perimeter really well, and we’ll have to defend in transition. Rocky is playing really well right now, and they are going to pressure us. So we’re going to have to play at a very high level defensively.”
Northern will indeed have to be just as good defensively Saturday night, because the Blue Hawks (1-0, 11-5) are showing they have no intention of finishing last in their final season in the Frontier. DSU is off to an outstanding start this season, and the Blue Hawks are one of the highest-scoring teams in the Frontier. They are also talented with newcomer TaRicka Linzy averaging 16 points per game, while forward Jess Bygate averages 12 points and eight rebounds. In all, DSU has eight different players who average seven or more points per game, and the Blue Hawks are averaging over 72 points per outing.
“They (Blue Hawks) are a very dangerous team,” Mouat said. “They have really improved. They have several new transfers, to go with some very good returning players and they are playing really well under a new head coach.
“Plus, Dickinson is always a tough place to play,” he added. “Especially on the back end of a long road trip. So it’s going to be a very tough game down there. We’re going to have to play really well.”
One thing Northern must do is get back to shooting the ball well. The Skylights went to Las Vegas last weekend red-hot, but it didn’t carry over. Obviously, 6-5 A’Jha Edwards, who averages a double-double, with 11 points and 10 rebounds per game, will be key to Northern’s offense, but the Skylights will also look to Taylor Cummings, Kassie Barta and Rachelle Bennett to carry some of the scoring load, especially from the outside, and especially with sharp-shooting sophomore Kacie McKeon still out with an ankle injury.
“To be successful this weekend, we know we have to defend really well,” Mouat said. “But we also need to be able to put the ball in the whole ourselves. We need to shoot it much better, from the three, in the key and at the free-throw-line, than we did in Las Vegas. We’ve got to be able to score, especially against two very good teams, on the road.”
Tonight’s game between Northern and Rocky will tip at 5:30 in Billings. The Skylights and Blue Hawks start at 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Dickinson, N.D. Both games can be heard live on 92.5 KPQX FM, or can be streamed live by going to http://www.msun.edu/athletics. Northern returns home to face UM-Western on Jan. 9 and Westminster College Jan. 11.