Road to repeat

History or hardware: which is best?

That’s a no-brainer for Hannah Stewart, one of three all-state returnees for defending state champion Bishop Ryan. Hardware.

Fortunately, the top-ranked Lions (25-0) enter this weekend’s Class B girls basketball state tournament three wins away from both a spot in the record books and another coveted championship trophy. A second straight state title would tie Ryan with Larimore for the most consecutive wins in Class B history. Though the North Dakota High School Activities Association does not track winning streaks, the Polar Bears’ 57 straight victories from 2002 to 2004 are acknowledged by coaches and the media as the all-time mark.

“That would be a great accomplishment, obviously, but winning state … nothing beats that,” said Stewart, who was named the 2013 state tournament’s most valuable player.

Ryan, the No. 1 seed, plays sixth-ranked and unseeded Lakota-Edmore today in a 6:30 p.m. state quarterfinal at the Fargodome. Of Ryan’s 54 consecutive wins, the past 22 have come by 30 points or more. Unsurprisingly, the Lions own the state’s top averages in points (81.1), points allowed (31.9) and point differential (49.2).

“That would be cool to go down in the record books and stuff, and I think it would just show how hard we work every day,” Stewart said.

“We’re not just a bunch of really good athletes who just showed up here. I don’t even know if we are the most athletic team in the state. But we definitely work as hard as we can every day, come in here with the same attitude every day, just trying to work towards a common goal.”

Against Lakota-Edmore (18-5), that common goal will be containing junior forward Fallyn Freije. To say that Freije gave Ryan fits in the Lions’ 72-57 victory on Dec. 19 – tied for their narrowest margin of victory all year – hardly does her jaw-dropping performance justice.

Let’s put it this way, this year, only two teams have tallied 45 points against Ryan: No. 2 Thompson and Lakota-Edmore. That night, Freije alone burned the Lions for 45 points on 16-of-28 shooting.

“She had an amazing night. It was one of those things,” said Ryan coach Julie Stewart, Hannah’s mother. “And then defensively, I thought we missed some assignments and got out of position.”

Said Ryan senior guard Anika Rovig, another all-state returnee: “She’s definitely a big offensive threat, so it’s just important for us to stick to our defensive principles and just not lose her – especially in a zone.”

The 6-foot Freije is about as efficient as they come, scoring 19.8 of her team’s 60 points per game with just a 28.9-percent usage rate. She pulls down 10.4 rebounds and converts 46.5 percent of her field goals while dealing with double- and triple-teams each night.

“I think our defense has really improved since that game. Hopefully we can key on her better this time and hopefully hold her to less than 45 this time,” Hannah Stewart said, tongue-in-cheek.

Ryan had the luxury of a balanced, potent offense to offset Freije’s outburst. The Lions have yet to partake in a high-scoring shootout, but they can torch the nets with the best. Stewart (23.4), junior forward Gabbie Bohl (18.9) and junior guard Maddie Wald (12.5) each average in double figures. Stewart also posts 11.3 rebounds and 4.6 steals per contest.

Making their third straight state tournament appearance, the Lions are a veteran crew. In 2012, Ryan fell in the opening round to Linton-HMB on a buzzer-beater before taking fifth place. Last year, a 54-50 victory over Central Cass in the championship ended a 20-year title drought.

“We know what it’s like to win the whole thing, and I don’t think there’s a greater feeling in the world,” Hannah Stewart said. “It’s awesome. To do that again would be amazing.”

A win over Lakota-Edmore could set up a rematch in the semifinals with Central Cass, which plays Watford City at 8:15 tonight. No. 2 seed Thompson, which Ryan beat 60-45 in both teams’ season opener, is the favorite to reach the finals from the top half of the bracket.

You can bet those two squads would love another crack at Ryan. Everybody wants to be the one to end the streak. The Lions know the target on their back grows larger with each win.

“Coach always tries to explain that it’s not about last year’s record, it’s not about last year’s state championship, it’s a whole new time and a whole new year,” Rovig said. “It’s tournament time and teams are going to come out and give it their best.

“We just have to focus on first Lakota, and then hopefully surviving and advancing to the next game and the championship game again.”

Ryan Holmgren covers Minot State athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.