The Nicolet girls basketball team features a great player in senior guard Brittney Fair, but it's hardly a one-woman show.
In the Knights 42-29 WIAA Division 1 regional-final victory over sixth-seeded Waukesha West on Saturday night, their entire ensemble took center stage.
Nicolet's swarming full-court pressure fueled a 12-2 run to start the game and another 11-0 run to start the second half. Those two outbursts, which transpired over only nine minutes collectively, proved too much for the visiting Wolverines to overcome.
"Intensity on defense is what does it for us," Nicolet head coach Corey Wolf said. "Our energy came and went in spurts tonight, but it was just enough to win."
The best offensive players for both teams, Fair and West junior Michelle Farrow, missed much of the game due to foul trouble, leaving their respective supporting casts taxed with the scoring burden. Senior Courtney Smith (12 points) and junior Briana Gray (11) were up to the task, combining for more than half of Nicolet's total points and accounting for 13 of their team's 15 points during one pivotal stretch.
That stretch included the final minute of the first half, in which the Knights held the ball while West sat back in a zone. With the clock winding down, Smith drove the lane and threw up a floater that found the bottom of the net.
"That bucket pushed their lead to double digits, and I think was a big hurdle for us to overcome mentally and one reason we started the second half slowly," said West head coach Kyle Moore. "(Nicolet was) No. 1 in the state for a reason. They are an excellent team, deep and very athletic."
The Knights turned up the defensive intensity again after the break, leading to six quick points by Gray. When Smith drilled a three-pointer midway through the third quarter, the Knights had their biggest lead of the game at 36-15.
"When our defense can trigger our offense, that is when we are at out best," Wolf said.
The Wolverines refused to fade away quietly, employing some full-court pressure of their own to claw back to within 36-23 early in the fourth quarter after a layup by junior post Kianna Keller, who paced West with 12 points, eight rebounds and four blocks.
"That's been our trademark; we fight and battle," said Moore. "I was very proud of our effort tonight. We knew we could get inside; I'd like to have taken advantage of that more."
But Fair made sure Nicolet would prevail by converting a back-breaking three-point play. She led all scorers with 13 points. Defensive stalwart Lanoira Duhart tallied eight rebounds and a pair of assists and was instrumental to Nicolet's press and press break.
"Duhart is a very good defender," praised Wolf. "She's not big, but she's strong, physical and plays with a big heart."
Nicolet (21-3) will take on top seed Arrowhead, which beat Menomonee Falls 57-38. The winner in Thursday's game advances to the sectional final. Wolf said this year's Knights lack the playoff experience of her 2011 state champion squad, but she knows she can always count on fourth-year varsity players Fair and Smith to make things more comfortable for their teammates.
"Where you want to have experience is at guard," she said, "and with Brit and Courtney and the skills they bring, that's our strength."
The Wolverines finished the season 10-14, though their regional semifinal upset of third-seeded Sussex Hamilton on Friday night provided a glimpse of their late-season progress.
"I think our program established a few things," Moore said. "We got better defensively, which was a focus all year. We're losing two key seniors in Ashley Siewert and Stephanie Stelpflug, so we're going to have to figure out how to replace them next year."
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