Lights brace for a showdown in Dillon
It seems like every single night in the Frontier Conference, the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team is playing a huge game with a lot of meaning. That's the case when you're on top of the mountain, as the Lights are.
But if there was a biggest game of the season for the Lights still looming, tonight in Dillon is it. The No. 13 Lights are in Dillon to square off with the No. 24 University of Montana-Western Bulldogs, in what has become perhaps the most intense rivalry in Frontier men's basketball.
It's become an intense rivalry because there's always so much at stake when the Lights and Bulldogs get together, and tonight is no different. Northern (6-2, 20-4) had a half-game lead on the Bulldogs (6-3, 18-7) for first place in the Frontier standings, and with the Lights still having to travel to Westminster and Lewis-Clark State on the final weekend of the season, the two schools that just swept the Bulldogs last weekend, tonight's game could determine whether or not the Lights will get home-court advantage throughout the upcoming Frontier playoffs.
But, that's not what head coach Shawn Huse and the Lights are concerned with tonight. Instead, they are concerned with playing a sound game against one of the best teams in the Frontier, a team Northern edged 63-55 on Jan. 14 in Havre. Northern is also concerned with rebounding from a crushing, 69-68 loss at University of Great Falls last Saturday, a loss that came by way of a Leon Sutton 3-pointer near the buzzer.
"It's getting to that point in the season when every game is big," Huse said. "Our guys know that because they've been in a lot of those games and on the road too. So they fully understand that they have to come out focused on Western and nothing else. They can't be looking back at last week, and they can't be looking ahead.
"I also think they are angry with the fact that we didn't close out UGF," he added. "And I think that will have them focused and energized and excited to play. It's going to be another really tough game. We've been in a lot of close ones with Western, both at home and at their place. They'll be ready for us, but we'll be ready too."
The Bulldogs did have it rolling like the Lights in recent weeks, but setbacks on the road might be costly. However, Western is still as talented and athletic as any team in the Frontier. Senior Brandon Brown continues his torrid scoring pace, averaging 22 points per game, while also dishing out four assists and grabbing three styles. Western guard Kyle Erickson also gave the Lights match up problems the first time around, while the front line of 6-6 Tyler Hurley, 6-7 Jake Owsley and 6-9 Kyle Perry combine for 32 points and 17 rebounds per game.
And the front line is a big concern for the undersized Lights. Joe Simpson leads the Northern front court, scoring nine points and grabbing six rebounds per game. But Simpson will need help from Sean Kelly and Ben Mitchell, while the trio of Corbin Pearson, Jordan Harris and Chris Brown have all been playing very well as of late.
The Lights will also need to shoot well tonight, and at Montana Tech on Saturday. Northern is still leading the NAIA in scoring defense at 57 points per game, but the Lights will need to continue the good 3-point shooting they finally found in Great Falls. The Lights made 13 three's in Great Falls, and hit four straight triples on a 14-5 run in the second half against the Argos. Shaun Tatarka leads Northern in scoring at 13 points per game and is among the NAIA's top 15 in 3-point shooting. Devin Jackson, who's been on a tear as of late, averages 12 points per game.
And while tonight's game in Dillon is huge, the Lights will be in for another dogfight when they visit Montana Tech Saturday night in Butte. The Lights beat the Orediggers (2-7, 10-10) 62-52 in January in Havre, but the game was by no means easy.
"Tech has been right there in every game they've played, including against us on our home floor," Huse said. "Their style of play really dictates to opponents and allows them to have a chance against just about anyone. So we have to be on our toes for 40 minutes against them."
The Orediggers are led by senior guard Tyree Hainee, who averages 11 points and three assists per game. But the emergence of 6-6 freshman Adam Greger, who averages 12 points a game, has really made Tech a tough and physical team. Senior guard A.J. Paine is also a dangerous 3-point shooter. And while the Orediggers have struggled to find the win column in recent weeks, they'll certainly give the Lights all they can handle on Saturday night.
"Both teams will be tough," Huse said. "It's that time of year, everybody is playing their best basketball. Everybody is gunning for each other. So we understand that these will be two very tough road games. We just can't allow ourselves to get caught up in all of that what-ifs and things. We have to focus on the task at hand for 40 minutes each night.
"These are two very difficult road games," Huse added. "And with our schedule, for us to have the kind of season we want to have, we have to find ways to win on the road. I truly believe this team can do that. They've done it before. They are still a very hungry and focused team."
Tonight's game between Northern and Western will tip off at 7:30 in Dillon. The Lights will also battle the Orediggers at 7:30 Saturday night in Butte. Both games can be heard live on 92.5 KPQX FM, or streamed live by going to http://www.msun.edu/athletics.Lights brace for a showdown in Dillon