Three wins is all that separates the eight teams competing in the Region 6 tournament from a state tournament berth.
One loss is all that separates those same teams from an emotional end to their respective seasons.
The region tournament tips off today at 3 p.m. when defending champion and District 12 winner Bishop Ryan plays Dunseith - No. 4 seed from District 11 - at the Minot Municipal Auditorium. The teams were scheduled to play during the regular season, but inclement weather caused back-to-back postponements and the game was never played.
Bishop Ryan sophomore forward Hannah Stewart looks for a passing option as Velva’s Jaylen Newman defends during a game in January at Ryan.
"They're very excited," Ryan coach Julie Stewart said. "It starts with energy... and it comes down to execution on both ends of the court. They're committed to this and they've worked very hard."
The top-ranked Lions (21-0) have won 24 straight games against region opponents, outscoring the opposition by roughly 40 points per game. The most points Ryan has allowed to a region opponent during that stretch is 48 to Des Lacs-Burlington during last year's regular season.
"Defense is always a key," Stewart said. "When you hold a team to a low score, it can really frustrate them. We've really grown a lot on both ends of the floor. It's understanding how much you can accomplish as a group over an individual. It can be evident on defense and offense."
As constricting as Ryan's defense has been, its offense is just as deadly - and its more than just sophomore forwards Hannah Stewart (21.3 ppg) and Gabbie Bohl (15.3). Junior guard Anika Rovig (11.1) and sophomore guard Maddie Wald (10.2) are also dangerous weapons for the Lions.
"We do depend a lot on our defense, but I was extremely pleased with our balanced attack offensively in our district championship," Stewart said. "It's not about what you've been, what you could be, but more importantly it's about who you are. We have grown a lot this year."
On the opposite side of the bracket is arguably Ryan's toughest test for a return trip to state - District 11 champion Velva. The Aggies are the last region opponent to defeat the Lions and gave them their biggest test this season, playing Ryan to within eight points during a January matchup.
Velva (20-2) plays Kenmare in the first round at 6:15 p.m.
"We have a good core of seniors," Velva coach Chris Braaten said. "They understand that their season is determined on how they play. They're going to do whatever they can to extend it."
The Aggies roster boasts seven seniors, led by guards Emma Keller and Kjerstie Fevold and 5-foot-11 center Jaylen Newman.
While Ryan and Velva are the odds-on favorites to meet in the region championship, Braaten doesn't want his team to get caught looking ahead.
"We saw some things happen this year that we didn't expect," he said. "This time of the year anything can happen."
Velva has been tested by another District 12 foe as well. Our Redeemer's - the District's No. 2 seed from the district - has given the Aggies fits, although the Knights lost both contests during the regular season. Both games were decided by single digits and ORCS led after three quarters in its last matchup with the Aggies.
The teams would meet in the semifinals, but ORCS will have its hands full with District 11 No. 3 seed Rugby, who ended the Knights' season in last year's tournament. While revenge is on their minds, the Knights (16-6) are more concerned with putting the district championship loss behind them.
"There's a little bit of that," ORCS coach Kory Nelson said about the revenge factor. "More so they want to get in and show what they did in the district championship isn't what they want people thinking about. We're a little more focused and determined on what we want to accomplish."
ORCS and Rugby close out the first day of the tournament with a 7:30 p.m. tip.
Three of the top 10 teams reside in Region 8, highlighted by second-ranked and defending champion New Town. The Eagles enter the tournament on a 21-game winning streak that stretches back to Dec. 22.
New Town (22-1) hasn't lost a region game since the 2010-11 season. Junior Gabby Wilkinson leads the Eagles in scoring with 15.4 points per game. Junior Baeleigh Brady (13.6) and freshman Jaye Two Bears (11.3) also post double-figure scoring per game.
"New Town has the upper hand because they are an outstanding team," Ray coach Kelli Heier said. "But Watford City, Parshall and Trenton are playing well. It is a tough region."
Brady is the team's leading 3-point shooter, knocking down 33 from long range during the season. The rest of the team combined for 46 3s.
Defensively, the Eagles hold opponents to approximately 40 points per contest and average 17 steals.
New Town plays Divide County in the first round of the tournament.
Seventh-ranked Ray meets 10th-ranked Watford City in a highly-anticipated matchup. Ray got the best of Watford City with a 57-53 victory in its only matchup of the season.
The Jays dealt with injuries and illness throughout the season and into the district tournament, which led to an overtime loss to Stanley in the semifinals.
"Hopefully we have our injuries taken care of," Heier said. "If we play tough defense and rebound well, we should be in the game with them... Our defense needs to step up a little now."
District 16 champion Stanley (14-8) has more losses than Watford City, Ray and New Town combined.
Region 4 is most likely a two-team race between fifth-ranked and defending champion Lakota-Adams-Edmore (19-2) and sixth-ranked Benson County (21-1). Both are No. 1 seeds in their respective districts.
Benson County knocked off L-A-E 47-46 at the beginning of the season. The Wildcats' lone loss of the season came against North Star - the No. 2 seed from District 8. Benson County got even in the district championship game, knocking off the Bearcats 62-57.
L-A-E has rattled off 13 straight wins after losing to Carrington in early January. The Raiders have won their last two meetings with the Cardinals, including a 48-43 victory in the district title game.
District 9 teams fared better than District 10 teams this season, which bodes well for defending champion Shiloh Christian - the District 9 No. 2 seed.
The Skyhawks (16-5) boast a better overall record than all four teams representing District 10. Shiloh routed Washburn - it's first-round opponent - by 32 points in a regular season matchup. The Skyhawks posted a 34-point victory over District 10 No. 1 seed Underwood, their likely second-round foe.
Shiloh's biggest test resides on the opposite side of the bracket in New Salem-Almont - the top seed in District 9. The Holsteins (17-3) were on the wrong side of a 57-32 decision against the Skyhawks earlier in the season, but have strung together six straight wins since, the last of which was against Shiloh in the district championship.
Beach recovered well after dropping its first two games of the season by winning the District 13 championship. It's biggest hurdle to a second straight region crown and state berth is Dickinson Trinity - the No. 1 seed from District 14.
The Buccaneers (16-5) crushed the Titans 64-31 in their only matchup of the season. Beach is undefeated against the seven teams in the region tournament. The Buccaneers play District 14's No. 4 seed Beulah.
Trinity (16-5) was reeling early in the season, dropping four of its first seven games of the season. The Titans have lost just once since and have cruised by district opponents.
The first round of the tournament concludes with Hazen playing Heart River.