On Saturday, Dec. 1, the Hettinger-Scranton girls basketball team dropped a 59-56 contest to Linton-HMB during Linton Shootout.
Nearly two months later, that loss remains the lone blemish on the Night Hawks' resume as the ladies in blue have reeled off 14 consecutive victories, seven against Region 7 opponents.
No. 10-ranked Hettinger-Scranton has kept its winning streak intact heading into the month of February, and has streamrolled its opponents in the process, defeating them by an average of 27 points per game during that stretch
"The thing that I've really liked the most is our ability to really move the basketball offensively," Hettinger-Scranton head coach Kelly Pierce said. "We pass the ball really well, we share the ball at a high rate, we're getting assists on about 70-75 percent on our made baskets. I would just say our ball movement and just our passing has stood out as a team."
With their stellar ball movement, the Night Hawks are far and away the highest-scoring team in the region at 63.8 points, more than eight points higher than Beach, who is second-best offensive squad in the region at 55.3.
Both teams want to play at a fast pace, which allows for more possessions and opportunities to score. However, the defensive end is what helps separate Hettinger-Scranton from the rest of the pack, as it holds teams to 38.5 per points, good for third in the conference.
"Defensively, we've worked hard the last two months getting our man-to-man to where it should be," senior guard Abbie Kludt said. "Sometimes, we do slack, but usually we're like 'we need this many stops' or 'we need to get deflections and steals so we could run.' (Coach Pierce) just keeps us motivated throughout the game to keep going for steals to get run-outs."
Additionally, what pushes Hettinger-Scranton into elite status in the state is its overall depth.
Along with Kludt, sophomore forward Sam Oase and junior guard Alyssa Andress are considered the team's "Big Three," but Pierce likes to rotates eight players on a nightly basis.
Senior Briana Sanford is a fundamentally-sound forward that plays opposite of Oase in the frontcourt. Junior guard Quinn Mellmer is a starter who is among one of the team's best athletes, while fellow junior guard Carolyn Schultz serves as the Night Hawks' defensive stopper on the perimeter.
Hettinger-Scranton isn't only receiving contributions from upperclassmen, as freshman guard Bailee Pierce is one of the team's best shooters from the outside. During a 78-41 victory over Glen Ullin-Hebron on Jan.24, Pierce drilled six 3-pointers.
"Some of our offense and our defense go hand-and-hand. We are a different team in the region from a lot of our opponents from the sense that we want to put pressure on the team both offensively and defensively," Pierce said. "Sometimes, I think we play at a pace that other teams just aren't comfortable with. We have a lot of athletes we can rotate in and out, and I think just that constant pressure, we can wear teams out."
Tigers roaring at the right time
After a home date with Beach on Thursday, the Night Hawks will welcome one of the hotter teams in Region 7 as of late: New England.
Winners of six of their last eight, the Tigers have rebounded from a 1-7 start to the season and are 3-3 in conference play.
"I'm extremely pleased with how our kids are progressing and how they've improved throughout the year," New England head coach Jason Jung said. "With a new coach coming in and not a totally new system, but learning a lot of different things and not knowing what to expect, it took a little bit of time for us to gel together as a team and get that chemistry down."
As the losses continued to pile up early in the year, the Tigers could have entered every practice with a less-than-optimistic approach. Not only were they losing games, they weren't in many of them either, suffering five defeats by 14 points of more. However, that did not sway the team's overall commitment, and the results have since followed.
"I have to give all of the credit to our kids," Jung said. "They have come in with such a great attitude from the first day of practice. We were 1-7 to start the year and they came to practice everyday like we were 7-1. Unbelievably great attitude, always wanting to learn, and that has really helped us in games. That has got them to improve so much."
Jung says his team is doing a better job at creating turnovers after recently implementing new half-court traps to complement its various full-court presses. Scoring layups off takeaways is a big reason the offense has been more steady, as the Tigers average nearly 50 points per game in their last eight games, compared to just 36.5 in their first eight contests. Furthermore, New England has made gains in its half-court offense.
"We've just really been playing together as a team and getting our offense down," senior guard Elizabeth Kaufman said. "Our defense has kind of always been there, but we've started figuring out our offense. ... We're working it around to get a better shot, executing our plays and just making sure we're getting a good shot on every possession."
Kaufman, one of the team's shortest players at 5-foot-4, is considered New England's senior leader who Jung says "kept this team together and headed in the right direction. Meanwhile as one of the team's tallest players at 5-foot-8, junior forward Molly Rayhorn carries the majority of the Tigers' ball handling duties and contributes as a strong rebounder and scorer. Arguably the team's best scorer is junior guard Shelly Kathrein, who put up 21 points during a 65-20 victory against Richardton-Taylor on Monday.
Junior forwards Emily Dinius and Lindsay Koch, along with sophomore guard Elli Rettinger provide consistent production to a team that will need as much help as it can get through the last five games of the season. With only one game at home, the Tigers will end the regular season against Glen Ullin-Hebron, Hettinger-Scranton, Beulah, Dickinson Trinity and Killdeer, who have a combined 49-34 record.
"We have a huge challenge the rest of the way," Jung said. "All region games, all big games, they'll be very competitive. We've put ourselves in a very good position right now to hopefully host a play-in game, which was our goal in the beginning of the season, but we know that we can't be content with winning six of our last eight."