Luckily for the West Fargo Sheyenne boys basketball team, state tournaments aren't won in January.
However, their first game of 2019 showed the Mustangs just how difficult it will be to bring home the state's ultimate prize in March.
Down by just four points late in the second half, third-ranked Sheyenne stumbled down the stretch, as No. 1 Fargo Davies closed on a 17-6 run to capture a 77-62 win in West Fargo Friday night.
Despite shooting just 28 percent from the field, Sheyenne still had a statement win in its sights, pulling within 60-56 following a pair of Christian Kuntz free throws.
By the next time the Mustangs scored, that deficit had climbed to 15.
Though holding the Eagles to just 35 percent shooting, Sheyenne struggled to contain guard Braeton Motschenbacher, who kick-started an 11-0 run by sinking two free throws and a 3-pointer on consecutive possessions following Kuntz's free throws. Motschenbacher finished with 26 points and hit four of six attempts from behind the 3-point line.
While the defense had its moments Friday, Mustang players felt inconsistency on that end of the floor was a major culprit for the unsatisfying result.
"Basketball's a game of runs. Down the stretch they kind of had us and we didn't really fight back," said senior guard Tyler Terhark, who finished with 14 points and four assists. "We really needed to get stops and that really helps us on offense."
Taking advantage of such opportunities was easier said than done, as the length and athleticism of Davies made life difficult for the Sheyenne offense.
Eagles Coach Bart Manson said his game plan centered around neutralizing Sheyenne guard Kuntz, a 20 point-per-game scorer, a strategy that proved mostly successful.
Though Kuntz was able to record a team-best 17 points, he needed 18 shots to get that total, and he came up empty on four 3-point attempts.
Davies' physicality also led to a sizeable rebounding edge, as the Eagles were plus-14 (44-30) on the boards. As a result, the Eagles left Sheyenne alone in first place in the Eastern Dakota Conference at 8-0, one game ahead of the Mustangs.
Though their size and athleticism played a role, Mustang Coach Tom Kirchoffner didn't feel it had an overwhelming effect on the final score, saying his team was simply out-executed.
"Their length does pose problems," Kirchoffner said. "Their whole lineup is 6-1, 6-2. A lot of their guys are multi-sport athletes. But so are our guys. We're not making excuses, we're just preparing for the next game."
Sheyenne has eight more games before getting another crack at Davies on Feb. 12. Though not ready to turn his focus to a game more than a month away, Kirchoffner isn't worried about his group's ability to compete in future matchups with Class A's top team.
"We'll be fine," he said. "I like our guys. I'll go to battle with them. We're just going to learn from this one and see if we can find something else to improve on."
The belief in the locker room afterwards seemed to be that the Mustangs would ultimately benefit from Friday's disappointing performance.
"Sometimes a loss is good for us," Terhark said. "We're going to learn a lot from this. If we win every game, it may not be (good) for us. Getting this loss here, I feel like we can learn and improve more going forward."
The Mustangs return to action Friday with a 7:30 p.m. road tilt against Fargo South.
Correction: A story in the Jan. 2 edition of the Pioneer stated that West Fargo Sheyenne and Fargo Davies play just once in boys basketball this season. The two teams play a second time on Feb. 12.