Making their first ever State tournament appearance, St. Mary's looked like anything but an outsider to the big stage as they pulled away from Danville in the second half, clinching the 1A Championship with a 74-59 victory inside of Wells Fargo Arena Friday night.
"I don't really know what to think right now," said St. Mary's guard Luke Lenhart. "I'm speechless. To come down here, to accomplish this. Coach is a pretty emotional guy. He was crying and trying to make out his words, but he let us know how proud he is of us."
"One of the best moments of my life," said Nate Lenhart. "Last year was a great year, but we were still hungry. After that Boyden Hull loss, we knew we still had work to do. We knew if we put the time in, we would have a chance to get back down here. We did it and just kept winning. I'll be floating from this all week, maybe two weeks. I don't know how I'm even going to do school work again. I'll just go and hang out all week."
Leading the charge, Panther sophomore center Kennedy Drey turned in an absolutely herculean effort Friday as he netted 35 points to outduel Danville's Steven Soukup's 29 point night.
"I was too much into the game to even think about it," said Kennedy. "I just wanted to win. I didn't care about the personal stats. I just wanted to take the hardware home. It's amazing."
"Kennedy played the game of his life," said junior Andy Drey. "Danville's a good team. They gave us a run for our money, but this is a story book ending. The greatest time of my life. All the hard work, all the summer camps. It paid off. Perfect."
A pair of Luke Lenhart free throws gave SM their first lead 15 seconds into the second quarter. The Bears would grab their final lead of the night at 24-23 midway though, but six straight from Drey put the Panthers up five less than a minute later. A Lenhart three pushed it to 32-27 at the 1:30 mark, before they entered the half with a 32-29 edge.
"We're a second half team," said Luke Lenhart. "We have been all year. We really picked up the intensity in the second half. We wanted to come our and rebound and defend better, and we did that."
A Richardson three pushed it to 37-31 three minutes into the third. A 7-0 run late in the third opened up a double digit lead at 47-37, but a pair of Soukup free throws cut it to eight heading into the fourth.
The lead would hover around 11 over the first four minutes of the final quarter. Danville would cut it to an eight points game at 60-52 on a Michael Soukup three, but the Panthers answered with seven straight to quell any thoughts of a comeback.
Drey hit on 13-of-19 shots on his way to a career night. The soph added five rebounds, three blocks and four steals. Luke Lenhart netted 13 points, four assists and three rebounds. The guard was also named captain of the 1A All-Tournament team, joined by Kennedy Drey, both Soukup brothers and Guthrie Center's Dustin Clark.
Ivey was the third Panther in double figures as he totaled 10 points and two boards. Richardson totaled five points, four rebounds and five assists, Andy Drey had six points and six boards, and Nate Lenhart had three points and seven rebounds.
The Panthers again saw their press leave another opponent frustrated as they totaled 10 steals and forced 20 turnovers by the Bears.
"We had to get them pressured from end to end," said Wilkening. "If you let the Soukups get shots in the half court set, they're going to kill you. We were able to make them work for it."
Steven Soukup hit on 8-of-18 and 11-of -12 at the line on his way to 29 and nine rebounds. Brother Michael added 13 and six boards, and Connor Hoberg had nine points and three rebounds. The Bears finish the year at 27-1.
The Panther title victory was a well seen one as the St. Mary's nation spilled all the way into the upper deck of Wells Fargo Friday.
"We had people down here from all over the country," said Wilkening. "This means so much to these kids, to the school, to the community. They really rallied behind us and gave us tremendous support. Just an unbelievable experience. Just so proud of these boys."
Both the Bears and Panthers figure to be contenders next year as well. St. Mary's parts ways with four seniors but just one starter in Richardson. Also capping off their senior years as part of a State title team was key reserve Daniel Lenhart, Lincoln Wells and David Pedersen.
As St. Mary's enters their 100th year of existence next Fall, one Panther senior hopes they have left them with more than a new, beaming center piece in the trophy case."
"This has just been an unbelievable experience," said Richardson. "We've come a long way since my freshman year. Now this team knows what it takes to get down here. We know what it takes to win down here. Hopefully, it's the start of a new St. Mary's tradition."