Girls basketball: Byron leading off against No. 1 Sauk Centre
Byron is in nearly the same elite stratosphere as No. 1-ranked Sauk Centre, though the Bears’ lofty status comes with an asterisk.
Sauk Centre is Class AA’s only unbeaten girls basketball team, at 30-0.
Byron, meanwhile, has been nearly perfect, too. At least in games that Ayoka Lee has been available (17-1). Ankle injuries have shelved the 6-foot-5 Kansas State recruit for 11 games.
Byron, which this week is playing in its first-ever state girls basketball tournament, enters 19-10 and winner of 10 straight.
It also enters with Lee at full strength. That’s enough to have Byron feeling good about its chances as the Bears play at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Class AA event at Target Center. That’s when they’ll attempt to hand Sauk Centre — a state runner-up last year and a state entrant eight of the last nine years — its first loss of the season.
"It’s going to be a great experience for our team," Byron coach Darren Nelson said. "I want our players to play loose and to play their hearts out. I’m just telling our kids to go enjoy it."
The Mainstreeters are fully aware of Lee’s impact and the Bears’ strength when she’s part of the mix. She averages 29 points (shooting about 80 percent from the field), 16 rebounds and six blocks per game.
All of that has Sauk Centre concerned. But it’s not just Lee who has the Mainstreeters’ attention.
"Having a girl like (Lee) is not something we can simulate in practice," Sauk Centre coach Scott Bergman said. "We’ve got some strategies that we will use (to defend her). But we also understand that you don’t get into the state tournament — and beat Rochester Lourdes and Stewartville back-to-back in their section tournament — by having just one player. Byron is very deserving, and this will be a tough situation for us."
Sauk Centre hasn’t found itself in many tough spots this season. In its 30 wins, the closest any team has come to it is 10 points. That was accomplished by Roseau, which beat Sauk Centre in last year’s state championship.
Sauk Centre, whose full-court pressure defense has given opponents fits, outscores its foes by an average of 72-42. The Mainstreeters force 26 turnovers per game. They also shoot well, at 49 percent from the field.
Sauk Centre has more speed than size, and is led by college-bound players Maesyn Thiesen (Minnesota-Duluth) and Kelsey Peschel (St. Cloud State). The guards average 12 and 13 points, respectively. Sophomore Tori Peschel averages 14 ppg, as well as seven rebounds.
But it is what Sauk Centre does on defense that is most concerning to Byron.
"The key to the game is how we handle their pressure and if we can limit our turnovers," Nelson said. "If we can do that, I like our chances in the half-court. They’re going to have to contend with Ayoka there. But we just can’t turn it over and give them easy baskets."
Besides dealing with Lee, Sauk Centre is going to have to contend with a Byron offense that can hurt you from the outside and has athletic guards who can get up and down the court.
The Bears have hit a school-record 160 3-pointers this season, led by Lexi Glynn, who’s made 54 shots from beyond the arc. Courtney Connelly has made 49.