Bishop Ryan girls basketball coach Julie Stewart has been preaching the importance of solid defense since the beginning of practice in the fall.
That defense-first mentality carried the top-ranked Lions to a 63-49 victory over Velva in the Region 6 championship game Thursday at the Minot Municipal Auditorium, sending Ryan back to the state tournament for the second straight year.
The Lions (24-0) forced 16 turnovers and limited the Aggies to 27.7 percent shooting to set up a state quarterfinal game against Region 4 champion Benson County on Thursday at the Fargodome. Despite the high stakes and the electric atmosphere, Stewart had a simple message for her team before the game.
Bishop Ryan junior Anika Rovig, right, celebrates the Lions’ Region 6 championship victory over Velva with sophomore Hannah Stewart (11) on Thursday at the Minot Municipal Auditorium. The Lions advance to play Benson County in the first round of the Class B state tournament next week at the Fargodome.
"The bottom line is you just have to play," she said. "You can't let the outside stuff affect how you play."
Velva scored the first four points of the game before Ryan finished the quarter on a 14-0 run to open up a double-digit advantage. The Lions led 29-16 at halftime, holding the Aggies to 5-of-27 shooting.
While Ryan's offense was out of sync all night, it attacked Velva's leading scorer Jaylen Newman, putting the 5-foot-11 senior center in foul trouble. Newman picked up her third foul with four minutes, 30 seconds left in the first half and her fourth with 5:35 left in the third. With Newman out of the game, Ryan dominated the glass, outrebounding the Aggies 37-21. Velva's offense struggled as a result, finishing well below its season average of 62.8 points per game.
"When the group can get a rhythm defensively, it's really when we get excited," Stewart said.
Velva (22-3) mounted a furious comeback in the fourth quarter, briefly cutting the deficit to one possession. But Newman picked up her fifth foul with 2:30 to play and the Lions took advantage with sophomore forwards Gabbie Bohl and Hannah Stewart. Less than a minute after Newman fouled out, Ryan grew its lead to nine.
"We just had to keep our composure and we had to keep playing defense because they are a good team and we knew they were going to make runs," Bohl said. "We were ready for it. Mental toughness the entire game. We pulled it out and I give props to Velva. They are a very good team."
Bohl finished with a game-high 21 points and added 13 rebounds. Stewart also finished with a double-double, registering 13 points and 15 rebounds. Both were named to the all-region team along with junior guard Anika Rovig, who finished with 13 points and seven assists.
Newman and Velva senior athlete of the year Emma Keller each totaled 14 points to lead the Aggies, but they had to work for every basket. Keller - guarded by senior Quinn Harmon and junior Laurin Leidholt - and Newman combined to shoot 8-of-25 from the field.
"We're trying to run something with Emma and Jaylen, a little two-man game," Velva coach Chris Braaten said. "It was working there for a while, but when you lose a piece of the puzzle, it's hard to fill that in - especially someone who scores like (Jaylen) does."
The Lions' offense was sporadic, scoring in spurts before going long stretches without recording a basket. Ryan turned the ball over 26 times, but a region championship made that all obsolete.
"At the end of the day you come out with a win and you're headed to state," Julie Stewart said. "We're just excited for another opportunity at state."
Rugby 54, TGU 50
Rugby freshman Shea Heidlebaugh's bank shot from the left side of the paint with 25 seconds left in regulation helped the Panthers to a victory over TGU to claim third place in the region tournament.
Heidlebaugh scored all of her game-high 20 points in the second half to rally Rugby from an eight-point halftime deficit. The sophomore guard was 6-for-12 from the field and 3-of-5 from beyond the arc in the final 16 minutes of the game.
Free-throw shooting proved to be the difference for the Panthers as they hit 17-of-20 attempts. Sophomore forward Darby Deckert went 11-of-12 from the line for Rugby. Deckert finished with 17 points.
"I thought our girls were much more poised tonight," Rugby coach Jennifer Brossart said. "It took them awhile to get going, but I think that's pretty typical of third-place games."
Rugby was able to pull out the victory despite having three players foul out. Aubrey Hovland, Laura Fritel and Taylor Wangerin combined for 14 points before picking up their fifth fouls.
"I have trust in every one of these ballplayers," Brossart said. "I figured they would step up. I didn't have a doubt in my mind when we lost those girls that the other girls could step up and play."
The Titans struggled from the line, making just 42.3 percent of their chances.
Delrae Latendresse and Mattie Schmitt each finished with 14 points to lead TGU. Latendresse also grabbed 15 rebounds.