Skylights season on the line
No more second chances.
Montana State University-Northern women's basketball coach Mike Erickson said it over and over during Thursday's practice.
It wasn't that he was reminding his team about keeping people off the offensive, they've heard enough about that this season.
No, Erickson was reminding his team that there are no second chances after tonight's Frontier Conference first round tournament game against Montana Tech at the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
It's very simple. Win and keep playing, lose and its end of the season. Despite all of their accomplishments, the Skylights aren't ready for the season to end.
"We don't want to be satisfied with just hosting a first-round game," Erickson said. "The whole point of setting the goal to host a first-round game was to give us an advantage to win."
There seem to be an advantage as each team won beat the other on its home floor.
Northern buried the Diggers, 90-62, on Jan. 18 in Havre while Tech defeated the Skylights, 86-77, on Feb. 14 in Butte.
Obviously, there was some distinct differences in the two games and the two outcomes. Erickson believes that the difference lies solely in the tempo of the game.
"We have to control the tempo," Erickson said. "It's a must. In our loss to them, they controlled the tempo of the game and forced us to play at a slower pace than we wanted to."
Tech slowed the pace of play by easily breaking Northern's full-court zone pressure and having enough time on the shot clock to set up its half-court game. Once they were in the half-court game, all Tech had to do was work the ball to Melissa Ritter. The senior post player was absolutely unconscious scoring 32 points on 12-16 shooting from the field.
"She was basically their whole offense in that game," said freshman guard Kristie Pullin. "She couldn't miss. No matter what she shot. She could have thrown it up behind her back with two people on her and it still would have went in."
Said Erickson: "Obviously, we want to where she's is at all times. We can't give her good looks that gives her confidence and she gets going."
In the Northern's win against Tech, Ritter scored only eight points on 2-8 shooting, which was due to the fact she rarely got the ball in position to score. In that game, Tech rarely got the ball past half-court, committing 29 turnovers, and when the Diggers did get it past half-court, they had around 15 seconds left on the shot clock.
"That makes a huge difference," Erickson said. "We won't always get turnovers, but that short time doesn't allow them to get a shot they are always comfortable with."
Tech also gets solid contributions from Marcie Alzheimer and Stacy Feretchak, who are both able to pick up any slack left by Ritter.
Since Tech had so much success against the Skylights zone pressure in the second game, Erickson is adding some wrinkles to his pressure to hopefully give the Diggers some problems and get some transition baskets.
"We want to reintroduce Tech to our running game," Pullin said. "They saw it in the first game against us, but not in the second. They're not much of a running team and would rather play at a slower pace."
Following the loss of leading scorer Anna Bateman, the Skylights have been scoring by committee. However, not once in those four games has Northern really had more than two players to do the bulk of the scoring.
"We really haven't had a game where we've had everyone play well," Erickson said. "We need to have more than just two people step up and score."
"Coach has never asked for just one person to step up," Pullin said. "He's asks for everyone to step up and play well."
Pullin could be one of those people, along with backcourt mate Nichole Neill, who has led Northern in scoring since Bateman was injured. Khadiga Mohamed is capable, as is Lindsey Buehler coming off the bench.
But Erickson is also hoping for Katie Zilkoski to break out of a recent offensive funk and for Kristal Lohse to maintain her solid play off the bench.
"We have girls that are certainly capable of scoring points for us," Erickson said.
One thing is for certain Erickson and his players aren't ready for the season to end tonight.
"We're never satisfied with where we're at," Erickson said. "To be a great program you can't be. We can't be satisfied with just hosting this game, we need to want to win it."
Said Pullin: "We need this win, we need it to go to Butte and keep playing. We don't want it to be over yet."
The Skylight and Diggers tip off at 7 p.m. at the MSU-Northern gym and can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.