MADISON — The Neenah boys basketball team is aware of its program’s history — it has made 26 state tournament appearances, which is the second-most all-time, but hasn’t won a state title since 1978.
Friday night the Rockets returned to the state tournament looking to restore their tradition, as junior center Matt Heldt called it if his team would cut down the nets on Saturday night.
Friday, the Rockets got one step closer by defeating 2013 runnerup Mukwonago, 58-41, in a Division 1 state semifinal at the Kohl Center. The Rockets play Saturday at 8:30 p.m. against two-time defending state champion Germantown.
Heldt dominated early against Mukwonago 7-footer Daniel Gerrits, scoring 12 first-quarter points, including a late 3-pointer that gave the Rockets a 17-7 lead. Heldt didn’t slow down as he totaled 26 points on 10-of-13 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds.
“Coming out with a pick-and-pop right away from Adam (Pohlman), the guy guarding me was just in the lane,” Heldt said. “If he’s going to guard me like that, I’ll get some more mid-range shots up. I just had a feel right away.”
Heldt, 6-10, was asked the last time he played against someone taller and it was a former Wisconsin Badger and Appleton West star.
“Probably preseason,” Heldt said. “Brian Butch played with me and kind of pushed me around a little bit. It really helps because it’s hard to find guys my size even it was basically a season ago.”
Pohlman had it going all game as a distributor as he had eight assists and the Rockets had 17 assists on 22 made baskets.
“In the season we’ve had a very high assist-to-basket ratio,” Bork said. “That’s how we play. We put the ball in our guards hands and get it to the kid in the right spot.”
Defensively, the the Rockets limited Mukwonago (18-9) to 27 percent shooting (11 for 41), including 1 for 13 from 3-point range. Heldt had something to do with that, but the Rockets overall just proved to be stingy.
“I thought we defended real well,” Bork said. “We’ve talked all year if we’re going to do things we just can’t be good on defense, we have to be great.”
The Rockets (26-1) have now reached their goal of playing for a state title and have a chance to dethrone the two-time champs.
“We have to be true to what we’ve done all year,” Bork said. “We have to try to take care of the ball. If you turn the ball overe against them, it’s going to be a dunk on the other end. Defensively, is what we have toi hang our hat on.”
When asked about the chance of winning a state title, Pohlman smiled ear to ear while talking about it,
“It’d be an unbelievable feeling,” Pohlman said. “We’ve said one game at a time all year and that’s what we’ve done. Now it’s championship Saturday. We’re playing the last game of the night.
“I think it’s every kid’s dream. It’s going to be awesome. Obviously, Germantown’s going to be tough. We’re going to compete and we’re going to battle. If we’re in it at the end I’ll be happy.”
Notes: Trevor Entwisle added 13 points for Neenah and made 3 of 5 from 3-point range. … Mukwonago was 18 of 24 from the free-throw line, while Neenah was 8 for 11. … This was Neenah’s first state tournament win since 1988.
Follow Doug Ritchay on Twitter @dougritchay