IONIA — The underdog tag was thrown out of the window. The Williamston boys basketball team wasn’t going to settle for that this time around.
Last season, the Hornets proved to themselves, and everyone else, that they could hang with the state’s best, as they knocked off reigning Class B state champions Wyoming Godwin Heights in a regional semifinal matchup on their way to the Breslin Center.
On Monday night, unranked Williamston was once again standing face to face with the Wolverines, the state’s No. 1-ranked team, with a trip to the regional title game on the line. And, once again, the Hornets showed that they, too, are among the state’s best.
The Hornets defeated Godwin Heights, 69-65, in a regional semifinal matchup at Ionia High School and will look to capture their second straight regional title when they take on the winner of Olivet and Portland on Wednesday.
“We thought we were going to win this game. We felt confident,” said junior guard Frankie Toomey, who scored six of his eight points during a momentous first quarter for Williamston. “It was a blessing just to play them again. All that stuff about them being the No. 1 team, put that aside. We played our hearts out, and we came out and fought.
“Last year we got some energy from coach (Jason) Bauer, but, this year, we had an edge to us coming into the game.”
Senior guard Sy Barnett scored a team-high 24 points for the Hornets (20-4), and junior guard Cole Kleiver added 19 points.
The difference in the contest came in the first quarter when Williamston’s 9-0 run to start the game turned into an 18-8 lead to end the first quarter. Interim head coach Tom Lewis said coming into the game that if his team could beat the high-pressure defense of the Wolverines (22-2) early, it could lead to good things.
Lewis was right. The Hornets never trailed in the contest.
“We thought if we could break it, we could get some baskets early and kind of get some confidence,” Lewis said. “I told our coaching staff that I want these guys to come out, get a good start, get engaged, and send a message that they’re in for a fight tonight. And that’s what happened. We got out to a great start tonight, and it set the tone for the whole game.”
Godwin Heights first brought the game to within one point late in the third quarter when it went on a 7-0 run to make the score 43-42. Kleiver, who scored seven points in the fourth quarter, pushed Williamston’s lead back out to nine with a pair of buckets and three free throws in the first few minutes of the fourth quarter.
The Wolverines got the game to within one point twice in the final minutes, and they even tied it at 60 after a bucket from junior Lamar Norman, who scored a game-high 25 points. But big free throws down the stretch from Barnett and freshman Mitchell Cook, who had eight points, allowed the Hornets to close out the game.
“When I was at Charlotte, and we played Godwin in the regional final, I made a commitment to myself that next time I played Godwin Heights that we were going to win,” said Barnett, who sat out last year for Williamston after transferring from Charlotte midway through the year. “I had it written on my ceiling so that I looked up every single morning and saw ‘Beat Godwin Heights.’ And with that set in my mind, I knew we were going to pull it off no matter what happened.”
Sophomore Sean Cobb added nine points for the Hornets.
Contact James L. Edwards III at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.