DES MOINES — If you felt a breeze at about 1:20 p.m. on Monday, it probably was the other seven Western Iowa Conference boys basketball coaches simultaneously breathing a sigh of relief.
That’s because the Ricky Williams Era officially had ended. The Riverside star no longer will be free to torment league opponents.
Williams finished with 21 points, 17 rebounds and four steals in the fifth-seeded Bulldogs’ 73-51 Class 1-A state quarterfinal loss to fourth-seeded Storm Lake St. Mary’s at Wells Fargo Arena.
The state basketball debut for the joint effort of Oakland, Carson and Macedonia looked promising with 3:38 left in the third quarter when Brady Ryun’s 3-pointer pulled the Bulldogs within 38-34.
But Riverside couldn’t sustain it. The brilliance of Kennedy Drey (33 points) and Luke Lenhart (28) was too much.
With 2:39 remaining, Williams exited the game for the final time. He shared a long embrace with coach Jason Shelangouski, then took a seat and draped a towel over his head.
“They showed our weaknesses out there,” a red-eyed Williams said. “But to end it here was just amazing. We got here, so it was a privilege.”
The 6-7 Williams finished his career with 1,994 points and 1,208 rebounds. He just missed becoming the fifth Iowa prep player to finish with 2,000 points and 1,000 boards. His rebounding total is No. 5 in Iowa history.
I played in and have followed the Western Iowa Conference closely for more than 30 years now. There’s no question in my mind he’s the best post man in league history. The way he carries his 260 pounds is quite remarkable. For a guy with that frame, he’s flat-out nimble. He can spin his way through tight spaces. He can dribble through the press when needed. He has tremendous hands. And he can pull up and bury a 3-pointer, like he did Monday in the second quarter.
“He moves pretty well,” Storm Lake St. Mary’s coach Brad Wilkening said. “He’s just a horse to deal with inside.”
Ryun, a junior, prefers playing with Williams rather than against him. When Ryun was in fourth grade, he had to play against fifth-graders Williams and Ean Patrick in a youth league. The next year, Ryun’s father, Rick, had them all playing together, and soon Williams was playing all over the region, honing his skills.
Shelangouski said that’s a credit to Williams’ parents, Rick and Mary. They knew he had some special skills and were intent on seeing him reach his potential.
“They’ve gone tireless hours to get him to where he needs to be,” he said. “You just can’t thank them enough.”
Williams and Patrick were part of Shelangouski’s first English classes in eighth grade at Riverside.
“Both of them were goofballs, but both would work when you asked them to,” he said. “They were great classroom kids. The funny thing about them is they came to school every day ready to work hard, and that’s a trait you don’t get to see very often in everybody.”
Williams led the varsity in scoring and rebounding as a freshman, but Riverside was 9-14. The state tournament seemed a long way off.
The next year, the Bulldogs went 16-9 and missed state by five points, falling to Exira-EHK in the substate final. Last year, Riverside made a first-round exit to Council Bluffs St. Albert.
This season, Riverside squeezed out a win over Underwood in the district final, and then blew out Villisca to punch its ticket to state. The Bulldog fans showed up in droves Monday.
“It was a great feeling, looking up and seeing basically the whole community,” Ryun said. “I can’t even describe it in words.”
Patrick said fans packed the gymnasium bleachers for Sunday’s sendoff.
“I saw people of all ages there. Old people. Little babies,” he said. “It was really cool. They’ve been supporting us all year. I feel like a celebrity.”
Now, Riverside’s challenge is making the trip to Des Moines a habit, rather than a once-in-a-generation experience.
“You have nine juniors, and if they think that they can’t get back to this level of play, they’re nuts,” Shelangouski said. “They have more than enough capabilities. They have to take this experience and learn from it as much as they can.”
Patrick had a rough day, fouling out scoreless with 6:26 left. He was asked what he’ll remember about his senior year of basketball.
“Everyone’s smiling faces. Just the joy of winning,” he said. “I love playing with these guys. We all trust each other. It’s a really cool feeling to know that we made it here and we won 24 games and made history at our school.”
Shelangouski said one of the reasons his team broke new ground this season was its character.
“Ricky’s been parented the right way,” he said. “Same with Ean, same with a lot of our kids. They’ve been parented the right away. That makes our job easier. They’re some of the best kids I’ve ever coached.”
After almost everyone had left the interview room, Williams remained. He tried to put into words what it felt like to see his career come to an end.
“It was very emotional to walk off the court,” he said. “I’m probably going to go back in the locker room and cry again.”
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