The Rugby Panthers advanced to the state tournament in fitting fashion on Thursday night.
Playing in the biggest game of their season, the Panthers leaned on the two pillars of strength that led them through a one-loss campaign and a No. 4 ranking in the state - offensive balance and stingy defense.
Each of Rugby's starters scored eight points or more and the Panthers held Westhope-Newburg to 36 percent shooting in a 54-39 Region 6 championship victory at the Minot Municipal Auditorium.
Members of the Rugby boys basketball team hoist the Region 6 tournament championship trophy after their victory over Westhope-Newburg on Thursday at the Minot Municipal Auditorium. The Panthers earned their first state tournament berth since 1997.
The Panthers (25-1) will play Region 4 champion Four Winds-Minnewaukan in the first round of the Class B state tournament Thursday at the Minot State University Dome. It will be Rugby's first state tournament appearance since 1997.
"We're just ecstatic to get to state so we'll probably enjoy this one a little bit," said Rugby coach Mike Santjer, who was named the Region 6 coach of the year following his team's championship.
Despite losing to Rugby by double digits twice earlier this season, Westhope-Newburg (18-7) put up a fight.
After Rugby took a 13-4 lead late in the opening quarter, W-N's Lane Berentson came off the bench to pour in seven points in the final 68 seconds of the frame to help the Sioux knot the score at 13.
In the second quarter, however, the Panthers started to distance themselves with their trademark suffocating defense. The Sioux scored just six points in the stanza and Rugby took a 30-19 lead into the break.
Junior Chris Hamilton knocked down two second-quarter 3-pointers for Rugby, opening up the lane for drives and cuts from Rugby's capable frontcourt of Kyle Lovcik, Brad Heidlebaugh and Kyle Halvorson.
"They can't come up with a certain zone to stop one guy," said Lovcik, who sprained his ankle in the first half but returned to the game and finished with 12 points. "We have enough pretty good weapons to put a good mark on the stats either way."
W-N junior Hunter Braaten got going in the third quarter, scoring nine of his team's 11 points in the frame. He finished with a game-high 17, but it wasn't enough to maintain contact with Rugby.
"Intensity-wise, focus-wise, I thought our half-court defense did a heck of a job," W-N coach Bob Beaudrie said. "Holding (Rugby) to 54 points ... that's a pretty good defensive effort. We just couldn't make anything and that happens."
Berentson joined Braaten in double figures with 11 points and senior Kodie Hancock scored nine points to go along with a game-high 16 boards. Hancock passed 1,000 career points in his final game for the Sioux.
Heidlebaugh finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, Hamilton hit three 3s and had 12 points and Halvorson scored 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting.
Beaudrie said his players shouldn't have any regrets because they "played their hearts out."
"Rugby's the best team in the state of North Dakota and they're gonna prove that next weekend," he said. "To keep up with them all game, I'm pretty proud of our kids."
Lovcik was named the Region 6 senior athlete of the year in the postgame awards ceremony. Braaten and Heidlebaugh were also all-region selections.
Des Lacs-Burlington 60, Berthold 58
Much like the previous two meetings between the Lakers and Bombers this season, this game came down to the wire.
Berthold (21-4) led 56-53 after a Logan Gunderson layup with 1 minute, 50 seconds left, but the Lakers scored on their next three possessions to grab control.
Chris Duke finished on a drive, Travis Johnson put in a layup and Cole Edwards snatched an errant pass and took it to the other end for a finger roll to give DL-B (20-5) a 59-56 lead.
After Berthold's Austin Lee hit a pair of free throws on the ensuing trip, Lakers star Tanner Holte was fouled and hit 1-of-2 freebies with 10.8 seconds remaining. On a disjointed final possession, Lee got off a decent look at a potential game-winning 3, but the ball bounced high off the back rim and harmlessly away from the hoop.
Holte finished with game highs of 21 points and 11 rebounds and Duke chipped in 12 points.
Berthold was led by Mitchel White (21 points) and Gunderson (13).