Skylights suffer first Frontier loss
It had to end sometime, but it certainly wasn't the way Montana State University-Northern women's basketball coach Mike Erickson envisioned it.
After trouncing Westminster College, 93-67, on Friday night to win their sixth consecutive game in the Frontier Conference, the Skylights' winning streak came to an end Saturday night as the Lewis-Clark State Warriors exploded for a 48-point first half to cruise to a 69-54 victory.
While it has been a long time since a Skylights team has started the Frontier season 6-0, the loss Saturday dulled a little of the luster from Friday's win.
"It was a very humbling experience," Erickson said of the loss. "When you are on top, you set yourself up for things like this. You have to have a good game when you play good teams and we didn't have a good game."
Saturday's game started out ugly and never got any prettier as the night wore on. Lewis-Clark jumped out to a 10-2 lead and never looked back. The Warriors led by as many as 23 points in the first half as they used superior size and aggressive full-court pressure to beat Northern at its own game.
"That's the first time we have had a team pressure us," Erickson said. "When you get a taste of your own medicine, it doesn't taste too good."
Lewis-Clark, the best rebounding team in the conference, dominated the boards in the first half, outrebounding Northern 28-13, including 11 offensive rebounds.
"We could never get our transition going because they controlled the boards," Erickson said. "Rebounding has been our weakness all season and they exploited it."
Northern was also hurt by Lewis-Clark's outside shooting. With six girls taller than 5-11, the Warriors drew plenty of attention inside from Northern defenders which in turn opened things up on the outside. Guards Jessica Foote and Alicia Hazlett combined for 29 points, including four three-pointers.
"That really hurt us," Erickson said. "We really expected them to pound it inside more, but they were hitting their outside shots."
Northern wouldn't give up and tried to claw its way back into the game. But, the team could never put enough baskets together at once or get enough defensive stops against Lewis-Clark in the second half to get back in the game.
"I was proud of the girls for not giving up," Erickson said. "They kept competing and trying. We just didn't get very many breaks. We had some shots roll out that we normally make. During one stretch, we stopped them on six consecutive possessions in the first half and we never got one basket during that time."
Northern got 13 points from Khadiga Mohamed and 10 apiece from Nichole Neill and Brettney Vermandel in the loss. Northern's leading scorer, Anna Bateman, scored just three points and played the final five minutes of the game with a badly injured hand.
"She's tough," Erickson said. "She didn't want to come out and she was in some serious pain."
Erickson said Bateman would have the hand X-rayed and would know more about her status later in the week.
While the loss may have dulled the win on Friday, the win still gave Northern six wins on the Frontier season - tying them with UM-Western in first place with 6-1 records.
It was a stark contrast to Saturday night as the Skylights grabbed a 9-4 lead in the first half and never looked back. Northern's defensive pressure frustrated Westminster into 30 turnovers on the game and the Skylights had a season-high 36 rebounds.
"We worked really hard on rebounding this week," said Lights guard Kristie Pullin. "We even did drills where we were boxing out invisible opponents. We don't want to be known as the team that's last in the conference in rebounding."
Northern displayed solid offensive balance with all 10 players scoring, including four in double figures led by Neill's 19 points off the bench. Pullin scored 14 points, never missing a shot on the night. The freshman shot a perfect 4-4 from the field and a perfect 5-5 from the free-throw line.
Bateman had an impressive line of 13 points, seven rebounds, five assists and six steals while Vermandel had one of her best games in conference play, scoring 14 points on 8-8 shooting from the field. She showed the offensive assertiveness that the Skylights have been looking for from her.
"Brett played awesome," Pullin said. "When we're getting scoring from our posts it takes a lot of pressure off the guards to score."
Westminster got 20 points from the Frontier's leading scorer, Rebekah Steenblik, but she worked hard for every one. Her frontcourt mate, Rachael Patterson, also scored 20 points.
"There's still a lot of basketball left to play," Erickson said. "We knew we weren't going to win every game, and the ladies are ready to get back on the floor."
The Skylights will get the chance on Saturday as they host the University of Great Falls at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.