For the Daily News
For one of the few times all night, Garrett Ziegler got the best of Neil Williams.
With Williams guarding Ziegler closely — like he had all night — Altamont’s senior leader went the length of the court for a layup that put the Indians up 39-38 in the final seconds of Friday’s Nokomis Regional championship.
But Williams — following the creed that his helped his team to a bounce-back season under first-year head coach Cody Rincker — refused to let that negative turn of events get him down. And the Bulldogs had plenty of time to answer, with six seconds left on the clock.
And answer Williams did, driving the length of the court himself before twisting and turning his way to the basket for an athletic game-winning layup at the buzzer, giving St. Anthony a thrilling 40-39 win over their NTC rivals.
“I’m just in shock,” said Williams, who was mobbed along with his teammates by the St. Anthony student section in a wild post-game celebration.
“Coach ran a great play for me. I don’t know how I got by my guy, but John (Goeckner) set a good screen. Alex (Hoelscher) was open on the right block, but somehow instincts just took over and I rolled the ball in and it rattled home.”
Williams’ game-winner gave St. Anthony (21-10) its first regional title since 2008, just one year removed from a season in which it set a program-record for losses. Despite last year’s struggles, Rincker said winning a regional was always his team’s goal.
“I think any time you have St. Anthony across your chest, the regional is on your radar,” Rincker said. “That’s just the tradition.”
The win also gave the Bulldogs a split in its season series with the Indians (25-4) in the teams’ fourth meeting of the year.
And everything about the game indicated that the teams were very familiar with one another.
The game was physical throughout, and the officials let a lot of contact go. The result was a low-scoring, halfcourt game, which favored the Bulldogs.
“Absolutely,” Rincker said. “Playing slow, methodical basketball has not always been favorite and still isn’t my favorite way to play basketball. I enjoy running up and down the court. But our boys understand what makes us successful this year.”
The Indians got off to a very slow start offensively, finding themselves down 13-4 after hitting just one of their first 12 shots from the field.
Altamont got things going a bit late in the first half to trim St. Anthony’s lead to three at halftime, and took its first lead on a Derek Jahraus basket late in the third.
But coach John Niebrugge’s team just never found any offensive rhythm, hitting just 14-of-50 from the floor, including 1-for-18 shooting from long range.
“We couldn’t throw it in the ocean,” Niebrugge said. “We had open looks. We shoot 40 percent and we might have won. It just wasn’t our night offensively. You can’t fault the boys defensively at all. We hold a team to 40 points, we normally win.”
Still, Altamont enjoyed a two-possession lead early in the fourth quarter after a pair of Jake Seidel free throws. Three quick turnovers, one which led to a go-ahead jumper by Williams, put the momentum in St. Anthony’s favor heading into the final three minutes of play.
But the Bulldogs missed three straight free throws in the final minute, giving Altamont the ball and a chance to go ahead with 15 seconds to go.
Everyone in the building knew Ziegler was going to get the ball, but the Bulldogs still couldn’t stop him.
“He’s a great player and we knew he was going to get the ball at the end of the game,” Williams said. “He made a heck of a play. He juked me out and made a contested layup, we made him earn it.”
Williams got past some traffic on St. Anthony’s next possession however, and Derek Jahraus stood his ground in an attempt to draw a charge once Williams got the basket. There was no whistle as the ball dropped threw the net.
Williams finished with 11 points and averaged 18 ppg in the regional. Ziegler had 11 points for Altamont, but was just 5-of-17 from the floor. He had 48 points in the Indians’ wins over St. Anthony and 18 points in his team’s two losses to the Bulldogs.
Jahraus added nine points and eight rebounds, but Altamont saw its historic season end.
“I told the guys to hold their heads high, because this group has done things that Altamont has never done,” Niebrugge said.
“It’s just hard to play a team four times and beat them three. It’s not always about winning. You’ve got to learn from your losses too. These boys have character and they will learn from this loss.”
The Bulldogs will advance to play Oblong at the Red Hill Sectional. Niebrugge believes St. Anthony will be favored at Bridgeport.
“When these regional pairings came out, I said, ‘This regional will go to Carbondale (for the super-sectional),’” Niebrugge said. “I guaranteed it and I still think that.”
St. Anthony 8 11 8 13 40
Altamont 4 12 13 10 39
St. Anthony: Williams 11, Gibson 6, Goeckner 9, A. Gardewine 6, Z. Gardewine 2, Hoelscher 4
Altamont: Ziegler 11, Jahraus 9, McGinnis 7, Borders 4, Goeckner 3, Seidel 5