CANTON: Playing the final game of the regular season has become a tradition for St. Vincent-St. Mary and Canton McKinley.

Before and after the two teams played Friday night, the same question was going through everyone’s mind: Are these two teams going to be playing in Columbus late in March?

The answer will not be known for five weeks, but anyone watching the Bulldogs defeat the Fighting Irish 79-77 had to acknowledge the talent out on the floor at the Canton Fieldhouse has to be among the best in the state.

The Bulldogs (13-7) are a far cry from the team that started the season 3-6 under first-year coach Keith Noftz.

McKinley has won nine consecutive games, 10 of its past 11 and is co-champion of the Federal League along with Perry and Jackson at 8-4.

“Our kids have bought into what we are doing,” Noftz said. “The game tonight had an atmosphere of a regional.”

The Bulldogs are a complete team with quick guards and big men that have offensive skills and intimidate on defense. They are one of the most athletic teams in the area.

Devaughntah Williams was unstoppable all night. A 6-foot-3 senior guard who is averaging just under 22 points per game, Williams scored 34 points by both penetrating inside and shooting from the outside.

It is no wonder Division I schools, including those from the Mid-American Conference, are heavily recruiting Williams.

“The only thing Devaughntah did not give us tonight was defense, but the way he played on offense I can afford to give him a little rope,” Noftz said.

As good as Williams was, the inside games of Da’Vontai Rorie and Mike Mills killed the Fighting Irish, especially in the first quarter when the Bulldogs scored four baskets on putbacks to lead 22-16.

Rorie, a 6-6 senior, scored 14 points and made two crucial free throws with 26.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter that put McKinley ahead 77-71.

Mills, a 6-8 junior, scored 13 points and did a good job on defense and, with Rorie, had big baskets inside that halted numerous rallies by the Fighting Irish.

The two teams battled all game, and the Fighting Irish tied the score twice early in the fourth quarter, but did not get the lead the entire night.

The Fighting Irish (11-9) kept trying to come back, trailing 42-37 at halftime and 60-56 at the end of the third quarter, but could not come up with the crucial defensive stops they needed down the stretch.

“We have not had a team play us this hard for 32 minutes. You could see how exhausted our kids were at the end of the game,” Noftz said. “They came in 11-8 but we knew how good they are.”

The Bulldogs are a Division I team, and the Irish are in Division II.

The Fighting Irish showed their own offensive prowess. D.J. Blanks came off the bench to lead the Irish in scoring with 26 points, including four 3-pointers.

He scored 10 points in the fourth quarter as the Irish tried to rally.

Nick Wells also came off the bench and scored 12 points and gave the Irish an offensive presence inside they desperately needed.

Starter Victor Dorsey contributed 12 points for St. Vincent-St. Mary.

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