Practices took on an entirely different meaning for the Region 3 champion Carrington girls basketball team this postseason.
Instead of a necessary chore, non-game day workouts and routines felt more like quality time being spent with teammates and friends, and with each visit to the gym producing more and more self-awareness as a team, the Cardinals became better and better.
"We used every practice to our advantage because we knew it could always be our last one," said Carrington senior guard Lexi Page. "So we used that and always worked hard."
Carrington, and its top-flight work ethic, is carrying a perfect 5-0 playoff record into this week's state Class B girls basketball tournament in Minot after rolling through both the District 5 and Region 3 tournaments in Jamestown. The Cardinals will play Langdon/Edmore/Munich (LEM), a team Carrington knows well, in Thursday's final quarterfinal pairing beginning at 9 p.m. at the Minot State University Dome.
Through fate, Carrington should be adjusted to the late-evening start, part of the tournament's plan to provide ample time between games to clear the venue and help keep it safe during the ongoing pandemic. Carrington coach Andy Braaten scheduled Monday's team practice this week for 7 p.m. as to not conflict with that afternoon's Carrington boys basketball district tournament game in Jamestown, and Tuesday's practice began at 8 p.m. to allow both an archery event and a band concert to commence at the school.
"Maybe the biorhythm process will take place?" said Braaten, coach of the Cardinals for 22 years. "You can hope."
Carrington has played LEM in each of the past four regular seasons and finally defeated the northern Cardinals by 14 points on Jan. 2 in Carrington, previously falling in three straight to the defending Class B state champions dating back to December 2017.
Carrington's 5-foot-11 junior Sydnie Grager scored 22 points in the victory two months ago, part of a 6-0 start to the season for the Region 3 champs. LEM, the champion of Region 4, starts one senior, Kaylee Lowery (11.2 ppg, 7 rpg), two juniors, Morgan Freije (11.8 ppg, 3.5 apg) and Marlee Hetlevedt, and two freshmen, Jaylnn Swanson and Jaya Henderson (11.2 ppg).
LEM is appearing in a fourth consecutive state tournament under head coach Rob Scherr. Carrington (19-5) was selected as the tournament's No. 4 seed by coaches in the tournament, while LEM (18-6) was seeded No. 5.
"They've got good size and they play good, solid man," Braaten said. "You've gotta earn your buckets."
The coach said the 5-11 Freije is a player the Cards need to keep in check. Frejie scored 13 in Carrington earlier this year, but she brings more elements to the table than simply scoring.
"On the block, Freije is such a good passer," Braaten said. "She looks to score, but she has real good vision in the post area so we have to be aware of basket cuts and weak sides if we give her help on the post action."
Coach Scherr said his Cardinals don't want to make things easy, which hasn't been incredibly difficult for LEM this season, allowing less than 40 points per game to opponents on average (38.4).
"We need ball pressure," Scherr said. "Make their inside girls shoot over us then box out. No layups or easy ones.
"Attack the basket (and) not settle for outside shots."
Carrington's starting five of Grager (13.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg), junior guard Emma Rindy (4.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg), and seniors Page (8 ppg, 4.2 rpg) Hannah Hagel (14.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and Kenzie Edland (8 ppg, 5 rpg) played a majority of minutes in last week's regional. Page, arguably the Cardinals' best defender, spent 40 minutes of last Thursday's double-overtime win over Linton/HMB in the Region 3 title game mostly guarding the Lions' standout point guard JayCee Richter.
In the region semifinals two nights prior, Page helped to limit Kidder County's all-state guard Madelyn Schmidt to 11 points, a game in which the Cards trailed by as many as 17 before winning 43-37. Page said Carrington is anticipating LEM's best game of the season this week.
"They've gained some knowledge and they know how we play now," Page said. "So we're expecting them to play better and we know we have to play just as good."
Carrington gained valuable experience of its own this season, going up against and, albeit, falling to the likes of Kindred and Region 1 champion Central Cass, who is the tournament's top seed at 22-1 after beating out Kindred for the region title for a second straight year. The Squirrels are also in Carrington's half of the bracket, playing Hettinger/Scranton Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
"We've done that for years," Braaten said of Carrington's strength of schedule. "To have that adversity, because that builds character up and keeps the kids calm during tight moments and that really surfaced in the (region) tournament."
LEM is also battle-tested, weathering three straight losses to finish the regular season to Four Winds/Minnewaukan, Grafton and Velva. The Cards eventually paid Four Winds/Minnewaukan back, defeating the Indians in last week's Region 4 title game in Grand Forks.
Grafton (21-2), the state tournament's runner-up to LEM last winter, is back in the final field as the Region 2 champ and is seeded No. 2. The Spoilers have outscored opponents on average this season by a state-leading 41.3 points and will open Thursday's play at noon facing Glenburn (23-2).
Braaten said Carrington's ability to develop a consistent press break by the end of the season and defend, probably more than anything, has been paramount to the team's first trip to state since 2016. Carrington is making its seventh appearance at the state tournament in girls basketball, winning a state title under Braaten in 2011.
"We had to continue to get the ball inside, and to get it inside we had to break pressure and sometimes that was a step-by-step kinda thing," Braaten said. "And even though Linton was able to turn us over (last week), they didn't score off the turnovers as much. I thought our half-court defense in the fourth quarter and in the overtimes was pretty steady. Everybody chipped in."
Including his three seniors, Page, Hagel and Edland, who have been waiting a long time for this week.
"It was one of our big goals," Page said. "As seniors, we've wanted to make it to state since third grade."
40% FG, 63% FT, 53.9 off. ppg, 44.5 def. ppg.
Scoring: Hannah Hagel 14.8 ppg, Sydnie Grager 13.8 ppg, Kenzie Edland 8.0 ppg.
Rebounding: Hagel 7.5 rpg, Grager 7.2 rpg, Edland 5.0 rpg.
Assists: Lexi Page 4.7 apg, Hagel 2.5 apg, Emma Rindy 1.8.
Steals: Hagel 2.3 spg, Rindy 1.7 spg, Page 1.2 spg.
44.8% FG, 66.3% FT, 56 off. ppg, 38.4 def. ppg.
Scoring: Morgan Freije 11.8; Kaylee Lowery 11.2; Jaya Henderson 11.2.
Rebounding: Lowery 7.0, Freije 5.4, Henderson 5.3.
Assists: Freije 3.5, Lexis Olson 3.0, Henderson 2.0, Lowery 2.0.
Steals: Olson 2.0, Morgan Freije 2.0, Kaylee Lowery 2.0.
Class B Girls Basketball State Tournament
(Tournament seeding/records in parentheses)
At Minot State Dome
Game 1: (2) Grafton (21-2) vs. Glenburn (23-2), noon
Game 2: (3) Kenmare (24-0) vs. Wilton-Wing (20-2), 2:30 p.m.
Game 3: (1) Central Cass (22-1) vs. Hettinger/Scranton (20-4), 6:30 p.m.
Game 4: (4) Carrington (19-5) vs. (5) Langdon/Edmore/Munich (18-6), 9 p.m.
Game 5: Loser G1 vs. Loser G2, noon.
Game 6: Loser G3 vs. Loser G4, 2:30 p.m.
Game 7: Winner G1 vs. Winner G2, 6:30 p.m.
Game 8: Winner G3 vs. Winner G4, 9 p.m.
Seventh place: Loser G5 vs. Loser G6, noon.
Fifth place: Winner G5 vs. Winner G6, 2:30 p.m.
Third place: Loser G7 vs. Loser G8, 6 p.m.
Championship: Winner G7 vs. Winner G8, 8:30 p.m.