WEST FARGO — The abrupt conclusion to the 2019-20 basketball season left West Fargo Sheyenne with a bitter taste in its mouth — one that still lingers.
The Mustangs were in the midst of a historic season, two wins away from a state title, when their season was put on hold, and eventually canceled.
Just like their state championship dreams.
“I believe we would have won it last year, and that was taken from us,” senior Ben Manson said. “So we're coming into the tournament this year wanting to take back what is ours.”
The Mustangs have shown they aren’t in the mood to mess around this year. They capped the regular season in near-perfect fashion and are rolling into the Class A state boys basketball tournament on the heels of a dominant East Region tournament showing.
Sheyenne (23-1) locked up the No. 1 East seed for the second year in a row after defending the conference title last weekend. The Mustangs play No. 4 West seed Mandan (14-8) at noon Thursday at Bismarck Event Center.
“I still feel a little bitter about last year, and so does everyone else,” Manson said. “We want to make up for it this year.”
Sheyenne was preparing to play in a semifinal against Jamestown almost exactly one year ago when hours before tipoff, the team was informed of the state tournament’s suspension. The incomplete ending — or lack thereof — morphed into a season motto of unfinished business.
“Last year, knowing how the seniors’ seasons got cut short, we felt like there was unfinished business there,” senior forward Jacksen Moni said. “That happening made the varsity program work 10 times harder.”
The Mustangs are fixated on winning their first state title. They’re coming off a 2019-20 season they’d like to forget, but Sheyenne’s five seniors are determined to make this year one they’ll want to remember.
All five of Sheyenne’s seniors — Gage Anderson, Barika Kpeenu, Jah’Heem Leake, Moni and Manson — make up the team’s starting five. They’ve stepped up to lead on and off the court.
“We had a lot of seniors that were pretty vocal last year,” Moni said. “And now that we lost them, it made our seniors bind together and be more vocal for the underclassmen.”
That togetherness has translated to the court. The seniors are Sheyenne’s top five scorers.
The big man duo of 6-foot-10 Moni and 6-foot-9 forward Leake have been reliable on both ends of the ball, each averaging a double-double per game.
Moni, a Northern State commit, averages 18.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game to lead the Mustangs in scoring. Moni is shooting 59% from the field and 76% from the free-throw line. Leake has averaged 10.4 rebounds and 17.6 points per game on 54% shooting from the floor.
Anderson averages 13.3 points per game, while Kpeenu, who will head to North Dakota State in the fall to play football, has averaged 9.7 points per game. Manson rounds out the senior scoring attack with 8.8 points per game.
Sheyenne had a different senior lead the team in scoring for all three games of the conference tournament. Sheyenne rolled its way to its third East Region title in four years with lopsided wins over Grand Forks Red River, Fargo Shanley and Fargo Davies.
“I definitely feel like a turning point was the first game of the EDC tournament,” Moni said. “We played Valley City (75-56) and Grand Forks Central (76-55) our last two regular-season games. We felt like we could’ve done better. It just kind of flipped with us. It started with the first round of the tournament.”
The Mustangs averaged 91.33 points per game during the tournament, while holding opponents to 56.
Sheyenne has won the last 23 games, with its lone blemish an 87-84 season-opening loss to West Fargo. After exhibiting total dominance throughout all three East Region games, the Mustangs project to be a tough out.
“I think we just want it more right now,” Anderson said on the team peaking during the postseason. “We still have to work on some things, but I think we’re in our top performance. ... Hopefully we get it done.”
Mandan has averaged 79.6 points per game and allowed its opponents 68.3 points. The Braves are led in scoring by 6-foot-3 senior guard Jayce Lowman, who averages 20.7 points per game.
“We’re focusing on one game at a time,” Moni said. “I know that some polls have us ranked No. 1 in the state, but it doesn't mean anything if we lose our first game, because we know that we're done. So we’re taking one step at a time. That's our mindset.”