LEWISTON, Idaho – Despite enjoying one of its better shooting nights of the season, the Lewis-Clark State College men’s basketball team couldn’t match the blazing hot effort of Montana State University-Northern as the Lights rolled to a 80-62 win at the LCSC Activity Center on Saturday night.
The win gave the Lights a share of the Frontier Conference title and also the top seed in the conference tournament, which kicks off on Tuesday. MSU-Northern, ranked No. 22 in the NAIA, finishes the regular season 24-6 overall and 10-4 in league play, along with Montana Western.
LCSC winds up the regular season 16-12 overall and 5-9 in league play, and will be the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament. The Warriors will play Tuesday in Dillon, Mont., against Montana Western, a team they split with during the regular season.
The Warriors were aiming for the No. 6 seed entering Saturday night, and despite a solid offensive performance, MSU-Northern took it to a different level. The Lights shot 66.7 percent from the field in the opening half and then shot 71.4 percent in the final 20 minutes to finish the game 31-of-45 from the field (68.9 percent). Included in that mark was an 11-of-16 showing at the 3-point line (68.8 percent).
“They shot the ball extremely well, but I wasn’t happy with our defensive intensity,” LCSC coach Brandon Rinta said. “We did not play very well defensively. Still, the way they (the Lights) played tonight, they deserve to be the conference champions.”
Although the Lights share the conference title with Western, they receive the No. 1 seed based on the conference’s tie-breaking system. Northern and Western split during the regular season but Northern swept the No. 3 team in the league, Westminster, while Western split with Westminster. That gives Northern the tiebreaking edge.
All first-round tournament games start at 6 p.m., Pacific time, on Tuesday night. Northern will host No. 8 seed Montana Tech, while No. 6 seed Rocky Mountain heads to No. 3 Westminster. Great Falls and Carroll will meet in the other first-round game. The four winners will then take part in the semifinals next Friday, with the championship game on Monday, March 5.
LCSC, which was held to a season-low 39 points in the first meeting with Northern in Havre, Mont., last month, hit 25-of-47 shots from the field for 53.2 percent and had a 40-32 advantage in points in the paint.
“I’d be willing to bet when we’ve shot that well this season, we’ve won every game,” Rinta said. “We tried to get the ball inside and at the rim.”
The Warriors matched Northern bucket for bucket early, but Northern senior guard Shaun Tatarka, who buried six 3-pointers on the night on his way to 18 points, hit a deep 3 to start an 18-3 run midway through the first half and put the Lights up 34-18. LCSC later used a 6-0 run to cut the lead to 10 at 36-26, but the Warriors would get no closer the rest of the way.
Northern led 39-28 at halftime and used a 15-4 run early in the second half to go up by 23 at 63-40. MSU-Northern led by as much as 24 in the game.
Jeray Key, one of three LCSC seniors playing in their final game at the Activity Center, led LCSC with 14 points, six rebounds, four assists and one steal. He finished 7-of-10 from the field. Donte Archie added 12 points, while Ray Stout, another senior, added 11. The final senior, Darin Stewart, had six points, three boards, two assists and a steal.
Because both teams shot the ball so well, rebounds were scarce. LCSC had a 21-20 rebounding edge in the game, but eight of the 21 were offensive boards.
The Warriors shot 52 percent from the field in the first half and 54.5 in the second half.
Devin Jackson added 15 points for Northern, while Joe Simpson added 12 off the bench.
Northern was the preseason favorite to win the league title as it drew five of the eight first-place votes in the conference’s coaches’ poll.