No room for error

At this point in the season, you might as well throw away the records. They mean little anything when every team needs to win to continue playing meaningful basketball.

Whether a team has seven losses like Region 4 champion North Star, or zero as the Rugby boys basketball team has, any team that qualifies for the state tournament has a legitimate chance to raise the hardware.

With just three games remaining, Region 6 champion Rugby looks to do what it’s done 25 times already this year: win. The top-seeded Panthers play New Town (20-2) tonight at 6:30 in the first round of the Class B state tournament in Grand Forks.

“They have two good-sized kids inside that are pretty athletic and match up with us pretty well,” Rugby coach Mike Santjer said. “Their guards are pretty quick on the outside, too. They have played a lot of zone, so they match up fairly well. We’ll have to play some good fundamental defense like we’ve been all year.”

The Panthers are no strangers to the bright lights of the state tournament. They were among the final eight last year, but lost in the first round to Four Winds-Minnewaukan and finished sixth. Experience could play a big factor as the Panthers are one of just two teams making their second straight appearance at state (Cavalier).

“When you go there for the first time you don’t really know what to expect,” Rugby junior forward Brad Heidlebaugh said. “This year, most of our guys have a clue of what’s going to happen and what the atmosphere is going to be like. We’re not going to be so shocked by it and we’re going to be ready to play.”

The Panthers have dominated opponents this year, winning by an average margin of 27 points. But they are battle-tested. Rugby played five games against ranked opponents, not counting two teams in the field – North Star and Beulah.

In the past couple of weeks, the Panthers have weathered every opponent’s best shot. Rugby trailed by eight at halftime to Dunseith in the District 11 semifinals and had its hands full in all three of its Region 6 tournament contests. The Panthers trailed early to Bishop Ryan in the quarterfinals, were tied with Berthold at halftime in the semifinals and fell behind by as many as 10 to Des Lacs-Burlington in the championship.

“Part of that was playing some of those teams a second or third time,” Santjer said. “It’s going to be about coming out just having a good focus. I know there’s a lot of distractions, but once we get to the Alerus Center and get used to the atmosphere, we’ll be fine. There will be a lot of energy in the building so that will get us going right away.”

But in all four of those games, Rugby has taken control in the third quarter. The Panthers outscored those four opponents 97-44 in the third quarter. In their game against Dunseith, it was all about offense as Rugby tallied 30 points in the eight minutes following halftime. Heidlebaugh led the Panthers with 20 points against Dunseith.

“In those games, sometimes we come out and are waiting to see what other teams are trying to do to us,” Heidlebaugh said. “Now, we’re going to come out and take it to other teams and put us on top in the early going.”

Against Berthold, the defense stepped up, limiting the Bombers to just four points in the third to break open a tight contest. In the region championship game against DL-B, it was a combination of both as Rugby outscored the Lakers 27-8 in the third. Junior guard Tanner Bernhardt caught fire from behind the arc and punched Rugby’s ticket to the state tournament for the second straight season.

With seven other quality teams in the field, the Panthers can’t rely on a second-half surge to carry them to three straight wins and a state championship.

“You can’t overlook anybody and you have to play every game as it’s the last,” Santjer said. “You don’t want to be playing in the afternoon like we did last year. The kids will be ready to go and be focused on what we have to do tomorrow evening.”

Mike Kraft covers high school athletics and hockey. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.