The Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team is riding high following a home sweep of Dickinson State and Rocky Mountain College just five days ago. But the Skylights aren't in Havre anymore, and things are going to get infinitely more difficult.
MSU-N (10-5, 2-1) heads to Dillon tonight to face the UM-Western Bulldogs, then travels to Salt Lake City for a game against Frontier powerhouse Westminster Saturday night.
Montana State University-Northern's Taylor Cummings races up the floor during a Frontier Conference women's basketball game last Thursday night in Havre. The Skylights are on the road tonight to face UM-Western in Dillon, as well as Saturday night at Westminster in Salt Lake City. Northern will return home to face Montana Tech and Lewis-Clark State next weekend.
And though the Skylights are facing two tough teams on the road, they have plenty going for them heading into their first big road test of the season. Northern brings the 10th-ranked scoring defense in the NAIA on the road, as the Skylights allow a scant 51 points per game. MSU-N is also shooting the ball well from the outside and is quickly becoming one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the conference.
Individually, Nikki Tresch is third in the Frontier in scoring at 15.7 points per game, while Jordan Bruursema averages 11 points and seven rebounds per night. Laci Keller is scoring nine points and grabbing six rebounds per outing, while a healthy Kylee Denham is coming off her best two-game stretch of the season.
"I was really proud of the way we played at home last weekend, especially against Rocky," Northern head coach Chris Mouat said. "We played well in a lot of different areas. But we also know we have a long way to go, and we're going up against two very good teams this weekend.
"In both games, our defense is going to be challenged," he added. "And in both games, we're going to need to make sure we rebound the ball well and take care of the ball. We have to limit our turnovers and we also have to make sure we finish when we got good looks at the basket. If we do those three things well, we'll be fine."
Tonight's game at Western (8-9, 0-3) would pit a smaller Skylight lineup against one of the best centers in the NAIA. But Western lost 6-3 Hayley Pettit to a season-ending injury some time ago, so the Skylights do match up a little better.
Still, 5-10 Sammi Bignell leads the Frontier in scoring at 17 points per game, and she's capable of playing all positions for the Bulldogs. Alecia Wilson (5-11) and Roxi Thurman (5-9) are standouts for Western as well, and Western has a talented bench to boot. The Bulldogs are also a very good defensive team, allowing just 62 points per game.
"Western has been impressive to watch because they have really adapted to a new coach and a new system really quickly," Mouat said. "They are very impressive in what they run and how well they execute. It all starts with Sammi Bignell … she can do it all for them. But she has good talent around her, and they execute really well on both ends of the floor.
"They have good speed, they shoot it well and they get after you defensively," he continued. "So we're going to have to play at a high level to stay with them."
As impressed as Mouat is with the Bulldogs, he, like the rest of the NAIA, is even more impressed with Westminster (14-2, 3-0). The Griffins have risen all the way to No. 4 in the country, and though they aren't lighting up the scoreboard like Westminster teams of old, they are leading the nation in scoring defense, allowing a ridiculously low 49 points per game.
And while the Griffins are like a brick wall defensively, they are still every bit as talented and explosive on the offensive end. Westminster is led by senior All-American Nicole Yazzie (5-7), who averages 12 points per game. Center Cydney Tibbitts (6-1) also averages 12 points and eight rebounds per night, while Westminster's depth is aided by the likes of Allie Eastman, Kelsi Wells and Tia Pappas, among others.
"They (Griffins) are an outstanding defensive team," Mouat said. "Their goal is to clamp down on you defensively and make life really tough. And they've done it all season against some really good teams. They just really wear you down with their defense, and add to that, they are so talented and deep, they are just really tough to get a handle on.
"So we're going to have to be a little creative with our offense," he added. "We're going to have to find ways to get some good looks and then try to slow them down on the other end. But that's not going to be easy because they are the real deal, so it's going to be a huge challenge for us."
Tonight's game between Northern and UM-Western tips off at 5:30 in Dillon. The Skylights and Westminster also tip off at 5:30 p.m. Saturday night in Salt Lake City. Both games can be viewed live online at http://www.msun.edu/athletics.