From the opening tip of the 2018-19 season, the Hettinger-Scranton girls basketball team established itself as the team to beat in Region 7.
The Night Hawks ripped through their conference schedule by going 11-0, winning those contests by an average of 26.7 points. Kicking off on Friday, Feb. 15, the Region 7 tournament will have Hettinger-Scranton as its No.1 seed, leaving a lingering question: Can the overwhelming favorite be stopped?
Earning region runner-up honors last year and slotted in as the No. 2 seed this year, Bowman County has only dropped three of its 20 games in 2018-19, however, two of those contests were to the Night Hawks and the other against Faith (S.D.), a team whose only blemish in its schedule came against, you guessed it, Hettinger-Scranton.
On Jan. 21, the Bulldogs trailed the Night Hawks by only six points entering the final quarter before falling 58-44 on the road. While a third crack at the ladies in blue could be in the cards, head coach Jaden Schoch understands that there's a lot of business to take care of before Hettinger-Scranton vs. Bowman County round three is made official.
"There's a juggernaut in our region. Hettinger-Scranton is looming there and everybody knows it," Schoch said. "To beat them, you have to be perfect, but we're not, by any means, just looking at them. Our first-round game against Beach or Beulah, we have to prepare for them and hope that we are fortunate enough to move on to the next team. We aren't even really looking on towards Thursday; we're taking it one game at a time, and that's something that's allowing us to stay focused in practice."
Offensively, Bowman County plays a motion offense in half-court while also pushing for baskets in transition, but the team hangs its hat on the other side of the floor. Relinquishing 35.8 points per game, the Bulldogs allowed the fewest points in the region, a statistic that may be a recipe for success as the pace of play generally slows during the postseason.
"We've always focused on defense. That's been our No. 1 thing," Schoch remarked. "We know that some nights we aren't going to be able to score, but you can always play on the defensive end. ... We've been trying to keep teams under 40 (points) in order to give ourselves a chance to win. That's kind of been the formula all year, so I guess you can say that's what we're sticking with going into the tournament."
The team that gave the Night Hawks their stiffest test in conference play is No. 3 seed Dickinson Trinity, who fell 49-42 on the road on Jan. 15. Holding Hettinger-Scranton to a season-low point total, Titans head coach Carter Fong believes it will take a similar defensive performance for any team to have a chance.
"The thing that makes any team in the bracket scary is defense, and there are many teams throughout the region that can defend very well," Fong stated. "What has set Hettinger-Scranton apart is their ability to score the basketball. ... They just lit up the scoreboard all long year. For us or for anyone else, I think they have to look to hold Hettinger-Scranton under 50 points, which has been a tough task all year."
As has been the case over the years, the Titans will host from the Knights of Columbus Activities Center on Monday. Fong deems whatever potential home-court advantage Dickinson Trinity may have to be insignificant.
"We're lucky to have a great facility, there's no question about it. I don't think it's a big factor," Fong said. "I still have that 'Hoosiers' mentality where you walk into any gym, you measure the height of the basket and it's 10 feet, and you measure the length of the free-throw line and it's 15 feet. ... We have a great venue, we're proud of it, there's no doubt about that, but I don't think it's a big factor as to how the tournament plays out. The team that puts three great basketball games together is going to come away with the trophy."
Behind the Titans, four teams concluded region play with 6-5 records. Beginning the season 1-7, New England had a strong second half to its year. Winners of seven of their last 10 ball games, the Tigers earned a tiebreaker over Heart River, Beach and Glen Ullin-Hebron, emerging as the No. 4 seed.
"We did not envision getting a first-round bye into the regional tournament," Tigers head coach Jason Jung said. "At the beginning of the year, our goal was to hopefully get a home first-round game, and after the start we had, we didn't know if that was possible as well. For us to end up with the first-round bye and the No. 4 seed, it is a little surprising, but the way our kids have come together, the chemistry we've built and how much we've improved, we're very happy with having the No. 4 seed."
Elsewhere in the bracket, the No. 6 Cougars play at home against No. 11 Richardton-Taylor on Friday. With the recent returns of sophomore guard Madison Bebee from a hamstring injury and sophomore forward Jersey Filkowski from a concussion, head coach Ronnie Stewart has a few reasons to enter the postseason with some confidence.
"Right now, our attitude, level of play, competitiveness, work ethic, everything is as good as it can be. That's what's so exciting about us heading into regionals," Stewart said. "Some teams maybe aren't playing their best right now, but we're a fortunate team. We've won three games in a row and could've easily been four. ... We truly believe we can knock on a few doors here and shake up some things in the region."
Mott-Regent, with an overall record of 12-9, along with defending region champ Killdeer may have something to say before the tournament is all said and done. With many capable teams to compete against, the No. 1 seed will have to be ready.
"Our biggest thing, is that we have to understand that every team in this region has a very quality coach behind it," Night Hawks head coach Kelly Pierce said. "Region 7, historically, and this year included, the teams are very well prepared and they throw a lot of different styles at you. ... Once we get up to Dickinson Trinity, there's going to be eight teams up there that are going to be hungry and have a chance to put a nice tournament run together, so we just have to be ready for everything."