By BRIAN LESTER
Every game of the grueling stretch is huge, and while it won’t make or break the season, it will go a long way in determining if the Oilers will be in a position to contend for a GLIAC South Division title, conference tournament championship and NCAA Division II tourney berth.
The run begins tonight when UF hosts Lake Superior State in a 6 p.m. tilt at Croy Gymnasium.
“Every game in the conference, no matter if it’s home or way, is always important,” senior forward Brad Piehl said. “With the North teams, you only get one chance to play them and coach told us that the next couple of weeks will determine how this season goes for us. The North games are very important and we need to capitalize.”
The Oilers, 2-1 and ranked No. 16 in the country, finished second in the division a year ago but went on to win the conference tournament for the sixth time in program history.
Duplicating that success means the Oilers must find a way to survive the rugged schedule that awaits them. UF finishes out the week with a 1 p.m. game against Northwood on Saturday.
“It’s a huge week, and really, we are now in the mode where the next month is huge,” head coach Charlie Ernst said. “We understand what we are up against and that we have a succession of difficult crossover games. It all starts tonight.”
UF has won its last two games, including an 86-58 win over Notre Dame College on Monday, and they will be up against a Lakers team that has won two consecutive games as well.
Lake Superior State (2-1) defeated St. Joseph’s 82-65 back on Nov. 17 and has been off ever since. The Lakers opened the second half with a 10-0 run and held a 59-35 edge on the boards en route to the victory.
Junior guard Derek Billing has played a pivotal role for the Lakers, averaging 18.7 points per outing. The 2011-12 second-team All-GLIAC selection is grabbing 5.7 rebounds per game and has drilled six 3-pointers.
Senior forward Derek Kinney gives the Lakers a formidable force in the paint. He comes in averaging 15 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Kinney has also dished out six assists and has tallied six steals.
Sophomore guard Jorddan Myrick (10.3 ppg) is also scoring in double figures while three other players average at least 6 points per game, including junior forward Cameron Metz (9.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg).
The Lakers, averaging 73.3 points per outing and allowing 72.7, are shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. They average 17.3 turnovers per game.
“Lake Superior is a very good team. They are well coached and have veteran players,” Ernst said. “They have one of the better guards in the conference (Billing). It will be a big test.”
The Oilers come in averaging 78 points per game and are giving up 71 while shooting 39 percent from the floor. In their win over Notre Dame, they drilled a season-high 12 treys and won the rebounding battle 55-36.
Junior forward Greg Kahlig has scored in double figures in all three games and is clicking for 18.3 ppg. Piehl and junior guard Aaron Robinson are averaging 13.3 and 11.0 points per outing, respectively.
Those three, along with senior forward Jack Smith, are among the veterans who understand the level a team must play at to succeed in the conference.
“We have enough players who were a part of last season that understand these GLIAC games take on another level of intensity,” Ernst said. “This game will be no different.”
The veterans also understand the importance of execution.
“Everyone has to be on the same page,” Robinson said. “We have to be focused mentally, we have to bring it on defense and share the ball to get good shots. If we do those things, we’ll be in a position to win the game.”