The Montana State University-Northern Lights are used to being the hunted when it comes to their rivalry with the Great Falls Argos. Year after year, the Argos seem to be chasing the Lights in the Frontier Conference standings.
But, for at least one night, the tables have turned.
The No. 24 Argos (4-2, 11-6) come to Havre tonight for a showdown with the Lights (4-3, 16-5), and this time, it's the Lights who are trying to catch the Argos in the league standings. Tipoff between the first-place Argos and fourth-place Lights is set for 8 inside the Armory Gymnasium.
Though Northern may currently be behind UGF in the conference standings, in essence, UGF is still chasing the Lights. In recent years, MSU-N has been a roadblock to the kinds of heights the Argos have been trying to ascend. Once more, Northern will try and stand in the way of UGF's progress.
Doing that however, won't be easy according to head coach Shawn Huse, who's team comes into tonight's game having lost two of its last three games, including a 56-47 setback at last-place Carroll College last Saturday night.
"They've (Argos) proven they can beat anybody in this league," Huse said. "They are playing at a really high level right now, and we'll have to play that way in order to win this game. As with any team in this league, you can take nothing for granted, and UGF is no different. We're going to have to be very well prepared and very focused, ready to play Northern basketball for 40 minutes if we're going to win."
UGF is playing well. After back-to-back losses to Dickinson State and Rocky Mountain College, the Argos come to Havre having won three straight, including a 70-69 win over Westminster College last Friday in Great Falls. The win streak has catapulted UGF into a tie for first in the league standings, as well as its first NAIA national ranking in some time.
The secret to the Argos' success is no secret at all. Senior, and reigning Frontier Player of the Year, Marcel Towns (6-2) is averaging a league-best 22 points per game, while also leading the conference in steals. Towns is efficient from every spot on the floor, and while he has an outstanding supporting cast in the likes of T.J. Harris (5-8) Shawn Williams (6-1), Naren Maynerd (6-6) and Maleek Singleton (6-1), Towns is the engine that makes the high-powered Argos go.
"He's a guy that gets buckets in many different ways," Huse said. "He can score from pretty much anywhere on the floor. And defensively, he can be very disruptive. So he's just a very well-rounded basketball player, and one that you certainly have to deal with in order to be successful. He's just a very complete player."
At times, the Argos have shown flashes of being a complete team, even in the face of losing brothers Matthew and Marcus Hurn to eligibility before the start of conference play earlier this month. UGF averages 76 points per game on offense, and plays a stingy zone defense which can really hurt teams that don't shoot it well against them.
Shooting will certainly be the key for the Lights. Northern is among the nation's best 3-point shooting teams, but when the Lights are off, as was the case last Saturday at Carroll, they struggle to score. That's one area Huse would like to see improve against UGF's zone tonight. That, and stopping, or at least limiting Towns' productivity.
"Offensively, they run some things that can give you trouble if you're not prepared," Huse said. "They're very good off dribble penetration, and they can put a lot of pressure on you defensively with that. On the defensive end, they are a very good zone team, and that's what they've played against us for the most part. But they can also really get after you, so you have to be prepared for everything, and you have to shoot the ball well. That's the bottom line."
The Lights certainly can shoot it well. Alfie Miller is one of the top 3-point shooters in the Frontier, and he leads a balanced Northern club at 15 points per game. Junior Corbin Pearson has also come on strong, averaging 18 points and seven rebounds in his last four outings, while Roshawn West is also scoring at a higher rate in recent games. Northern's depth should be better tonight too, as a healthy Will Perry is a key factor, while Nicholas Blount and Damian Robinson continue to improve after suffering injuries earlier in the season.
Emotion will also play a role in tonight's contest, as is always the case with the Lights and Argos. A packed Armory would certainly give the Lights an edge, while UGF comes in fighting to stay atop the Frontier standings. So once again, expect an emotional and hard-fought battle, as is it always is between these two bitter rivals.
"It's going to be a tough game, just like every night in this league," Huse said. "UGF is playing well, and I still feel like we're not that far off from where we want to be."
Tonight's game between the Lights and Argos tips off at 8 in the Armory. The game is also being run in conjunction with Coaches vs Cancer. All of the coaches in tonight's game will wear sneakers, while $1 of every admission tonight will be donated to the Coaches vs Cancer fund, and will be distributed locally. Northern and UGF will meet again next Thursday in Great Falls.
Lights (4-3, 16-5) vs No. 24 Great Falls (4-2, 13-6) tonight at 8 p.m. in the Armory
Radio: 92.5 KPQX FM
MSU-N Probable Starters
G Allan Brown, 6-1, Sr. 5 ppg
G Alfie Miller, 6-0, Sr. 15 ppg
G Roshawn West, 6-1, Sr. 9 ppg
F Corbin Pearson, 6-6, Jr.11 ppg
F Jesse Vaughan, 6-5, Jr .,7 ppg