MSU-N women battle Griffins
Thanks to a pair of emphatic wins last weekend at home last weekend, the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team has put itself in a good position going into the final two games of the Frontier Conference season.
Unfortunately, the Skylights have to finish the season on the road, against the two best teams in the league.
Northern (7-5, 20-6) rides a three-game winning streak into tonight's game at Frontier regular season champion Westminster. The Skylights and Griffins tip off at 5:30 p.m. in Salt Lake City. Northern will also travel to Lewiston, Idaho on Saturday night to take on the Lewis-Clark State Warriors.
This is a huge, challenging weekend for us. Playing two ranked teams in 3 days will tell us a lot about where we are at heading into the conference tournament. We're really hoping to continue to improve by playing the best, and use the experience we gain from great competition to help us be as ready as possible for next Wednesday.
"This is a huge, challenging weekend for us," Northern head coach Chris Mouat said. "Playing two ranked teams in 3 days will tell us a lot about where we are at heading into the conference tournament. We're really hoping to continue to improve by playing the best, and use the experience we gain from great competition to help us be as ready as possible for next Wednesday."
Before the Skylights can get to next Wednesday, when they'll host a first-round playoff game in Havre, they will try to do something they've never done – win at Westminster tonight. The Skylights also lost to the No. 16 Griffins (11-1, 18-7) 56-39 last month in Havre, but they are playing at a different level now. Northern swept Rocky Mountain College and Carroll College at home last weekend, moving the Skylights into a third-place tie with the Battlin' Bears.
In their last two home game, MSU-N shot 49 percent from the field and made 17 3-pointers. The Skylights lead the NAIA in 3-point shooting, and they also lead the Frontier in scoring defense, yielding just 51 points per game. Individually, senior Laramie Schwenke is having a huge finish to the season. She is averaging 16 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals per game. Her six boards per game is tied for the team lead with Jordan Bruursema, who also averages 13 points per game.
But Northern's recent hot streak isn't just a Schwenke thing. Nikki Tresch also averages 12 points per night, and fellow guard Kylee Denham was huge in both wins a week ago. However, the place of sophomore Laci Keller and junior Kelly Millager have been critical Northern's success, just as it will be again tonight in Salt Lake.
The Griffins, who have locked up at least a share of the Frontier regular season title, are a powerful offensive team, averaging 68 points per game. Westminster is guard oriented with junior Nicole Yazzie scoring 13 points per game. But overall, the Griffins have players who score double figures and 6-0 forward Cydney Tibbitts will be a handful for the Skylight posts tonight. Tibbitts is a strong inside player, but like the rest of the Griffins, is also a deadly 3-point shooter.
"They (Griffins) are the hottest team in the league right now and coming off of a huge win against Lewis-Clark State," Mouat said. "They have great depth and up to eight or nine kids that can get double figures any given night. They are executing at a high level, and have two of the best guards in the league in Jackson and Yazzie."
"They also defend as well as anyone we've seen and really shut us down the first time we played," he added. "We'll have to be much, much better in offensive execution, and we'll have to keep some possessions alive with offensive boards. Defensively, we did not do a bad job the first time around, we just dug ourselves too big a hole early in the game. This team has been hitting double-digit threes in most of their games, so we know they can shoot it. They also have quality, hard-nosed post players who can score inside and out. They are a big, big challenge."
And things get no easier for the Skylights on Saturday night in Idaho.
The No. 13 Warriors (9-3, 23-4) will be gunning for Northern after the Skylights knocked them off in a thriller last month in Havre. At the time, LC State was ranked No. 6 in the NAIA. And the Warriors were also without senior Jasmine Stohr, who is back and still leading the Frontier in scoring at 19 points per game.
Once again, Northern's posts will be a huge factor as LCSC's Alyssa Fierro (6-2) and Kirsi Voshell (6-3) are perhaps the best big tandem in the NAIA. The Warriors also lead the Frontier in rebounding margin and total rebounds. Together, Fierro and Voshell average 20 points and 22 rebounds per game.
"Jasmine Stohr is back, and she's not really seemed to miss a beat," Mouat said. "She's still leading the league in scoring by a lot, and she's just so capable of hurting you in different ways. She has great length at the guard spot, and can literally do it all. She'll be a major focus for us. However, they are still so talented and big inside. They are definitely the biggest team in the league. Traditionally, they dominate on the boards and this year is no different. We will have to find a way to rebound with them if we want to be successful."
But successful or not this weekend, the Skylights want to make sure they play well. Northern hasn't won three games in a row all season and they seem to building momentum as they head into the postseason.
"I think we're playing with a lot of confidence right now," Schwenke said last weekend. "And we'll need that because we have two huge games on the road. But we know from these last few wins that when we play like this, we can beat anyone in our league. That's a good feeling to have and this is the time you want to be feeling like you're playing your best basketball."
Tonight's game between the Skylights and Griffins will tip off at 5:30 p.m. in Salt Lake City. Saturday's game at LCSC will begin at 6:30 p.m. M.S.T. For live streaking, go to http://www.msun.ed/athletics.