For the Daily News
St. Anthony was technically the favorite in the second semifinal Wednesday at the Nokomis Class 1A Regional.
But the fact that the second-seeded Bulldogs were playing third-seeded Nokomis in its home gym — one adorned with photos of the program’s numerous state squads and packed with hometown fans cheering on a 22-win team coached by a living legend with more than 700 career victories — told the real story.
The odds were against the Bulldogs against the Redskins.
But a huge game by Neil Williams and an outstanding defensive effort helped St. Anthony overcome those odds, as the Bulldogs set up an all-NTC championship with an impressive 48-35 win.
The Bulldogs (20-10) will take on top-seeded Altamont (25-3) in Friday’s 7 p.m. title game. They will do so just one year after losing 19 games — and thanks to a win against a storied program that finished third at state a year ago.
“Hat’s off to Nokomis,” said first-year St. Anthony coach Cody Rincker. “That’s a great basketball team and coach (Steve) Kimbro does a great job. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he’s been able to do. We feel very fortunate to come away the way we did.
“I was coaching against a living legend, basically. You don’t get to coach against a guy like that every night. That was something special for me.”
Williams’ night was special as well.
The senior guard hit his first 3-pointer and never slowed down, finishing with 24 points, including five shots from beyond the arc. Williams also grabbed a pair of huge fourth-quarter steals and held Nokomis standout Austin Chausse to five points.
“Neil’s the type of player that if he gets to feeling good about himself, he can do some special things,” Rincker said. “He got hot and really kept us afloat. He did a great job not just scoring, but he was that floor leader too. He’s made himself an all-around player.”
The Bulldogs raced out to a 14-6 lead after one quarter and never trailed.
A pair of long St. Anthony scoring droughts gave Nokomis a fighting chance, but the Bulldogs recovered both times.
The first was a four-minute drought in the second quarter. Nokomis cut the lead to two points, but the Bulldogs responded with a 9-2 run that had them leading 25-16 at intermission.
St. Anthony came out cold in the third quarter, going roughly five minutes without a score, as Nokomis again cut the lead to two.
But Williams’ fourth 3-pointer of the game got the Bulldogs back in command shortly after John Goeckner bucket ended the dry spell.
St. Anthony took a 30-23 lead into the fourth quarter, and an Andrew Gardewine jumper and another Williams 3-pointer had St. Anthony suddenly up double digits.
A pair of Nokomis 3-pointers made things interesting, but two steals by Williams and a bunch of successful St. Anthony free-throw attempts sealed the win for the Bulldogs.
St. Anthony finished 13-of-15 from the line in the game.
Rincker praised the work of his inside players as well. Goeckner had 10 points and nine rebounds, including three offensive rebounds on a single possession.
“He also showed tonight that he’s a complete basketball player,” Rincker said. “He showed he can guard, he can score points when we need him to, and he can handle the basketball. He just did a great job.”
Alex Hoelscher and Derek Rios teamed up to hold 6-foot-6 Marcus Chausse to eight points.
“I felt (Derek) gave us some tremendous minutes defensively,” Rincker said. “Any time you go up against 6-5, 250, it can be a load. So you’ve got to throw more than one guy at him.”
First-year varsity player Frank Jansen added six big points on baseline jumpers.
The Bulldogs reached the 20-win plateau against a program that has reached that mark 18 of the last 20 years, making the long journey to that feat all-the-more special.
“Our eyes were on 20 at the beginning of the year,” Rincker said. “We were hoping it wouldn’t take us this long to get there, but it did. But we did it against a very solid Nokomis team tonight.”
St. Anthony will have its hands full on Friday, as it will face Altamont for the fourth time this year. The Bulldogs topped the Indians at the Vandalia Holiday Tournament, but have lost the last two meetings with their neighbors to the west.
“We’ve got to turn the page,” Rincker said. “We’re going to need the same type of effort and then some (on Friday), I believe.”
St. Anthony 14 11 5 18 48
Nokomis 6 10 7 12 35
St. Anthony: Williams 24, Goeckner 10, Jansen 6, Gibson 2, Hoelscher 2, A.Gardewine 2, Rios 2
Nokomis: M.Chausse 8, Hamlin 8, Lee 11, A.Chausse 5, Herbstreit 3