Nicolet basketball coach Paul Hepp was so certain that the baseline 3-pointer that was put up by his team late in its WIAA Division 2 regional semifinal Friday night with North Shore rival Grafton was down that he had all but called the time-out already.
Instead, the ball did at least a 720-degree, maybe even 1,080-degree spin around the basket, being sucked more than halfway down before it popped back out and into the hands of Grafton forward Beau Benzschawel.
So instead of being down just two with just under a minute to go and with another chance to force a turnover, the Knights were forced to foul Benzschawel.
He downed two free throws with 45 seconds left for a 54-47 lead and the Knights were never able to get within four again in a season-ending 56-50 defeat.
"Sometimes the basketball gods just don't smile on you," said a philosophical Hepp, "but this more or less came down to whether we could play a full game or not. Even when we were on a recent winning streak (six games), we'd play some good halves and then we'd play some mediocre halves."
"And that all comes down to mental preparation."
For Nicolet, that recent win streak had included an 18-point win against these same Blackhawks, as the Knights' once promising season came to an end at 14-9.
The Knights had entered the game as the third seed in the sectional bracket and Grafton the six. The Blackhawks, which had dropped both games to Nicolet by a combined total of 35 points this season, improved to 9-14 and advanced to a regional final Saturday at second-seeded Waupun.
Waupun overpowered Cedarburg in its semifinal.
For Grafton coach Bob Maronde, who is in the midst of his first season coaching the Blackhawk boys after a long and successful run coaching the girls' teams, the win showed how far his team had evolved.
"A lot of the credit goes to these kids," he said of his team. "Change is tough on everybody. Good change, bad change, it's hard, especially me. I'm really a different kind of change to them (laughs)."
"But the guys bought in. About midway through the season we started playing well enough to stay with teams for three quarters but we just couldn't finish. Then about two weeks ago I think we figured something out and found a way to win."
"And this is a heck of a win over a good team."
It didn't look it was going to go the visiting Blackhawks way early on, as the Knights raced out to a 7-0 lead. But Grafton hit three three-pointers in the quarter and cut the deficit to 19-17 at period's end.
Then the Blackhawks' length (6-7 and 6-6 in the starting line-up) started to influence the Nicolet offense.
The Knights reached their highwater mark when guard Nolan Wagner hit a baseline three to make it 25-21 in favor of Nicolet with 3:06 remaining in the half. But those would be the last points Nicolet would score for about 4:30 extending into the third quarter.
The Blackhawks closed the half with an 8-0 run including a clutch jumper from 6-7 forward Scotty Tyler just inside the arc at the buzzer to make it 29-25 Grafton going into the break.
The visitors would never trail again.
And Grafton started the second half the same way as Tyler popped in a trey from the key to initiate the scoring and before Hepp and the Knights knew it, the run had been extended to 15-2 and Grafton led 37-27 just 1:27 into the third quarter.
What helped the Blackhawks is that after some problems in the first half, they stayed to break the Knight press and earn some easy lay-ups.
"We were willing to make the extra pass to get the basket," Maronde said. "In the first part of the season, in a situation like that, we would have likely bounced the ball off the back wall."
Meanwhile, Hepp wishes his team had been that disciplined.
"We had a tendency to drive into traffic leaping off of just one foot instead of making the good jump stop," said Hepp, "and that leads to trouble sometimes."
So does poor shooting, as if the Knights missed one lay-up, putback or otherwise reasonably easy shot tonight, they missed dozens. After going seven for 12 from the field in the first quarter, they were an estimated nine of 42 for the rest of the game (about 21 percent).
After that initial surge in the second half, Blackhawks would hold the Knights on a yo-yo, letting them get to within four twice, but no closer. Two free throws by Tyler Miller with 2:34 left in the third closed the gap to 41-37, but then Grafton scored six points in the final 1:37 of the session to push the gap back up to 10.
The Blackhawks stretched the lead to 10 and then again to nine in the fourth, but couldn't quite put away Nicolet. But the Knights couldn't help themselves either, hitting just four of 17 shots in the period, including that infamous spinning three-pointer.
And after hitting their first six free throws of the half, the Knights would hit only one of their last five charity attempts.
Tyler would lead the Blackhawks with 17 points while Benzschawel had 16. Tyler Miller led Nicolet with 15 while Eugene Bonner had 13, and Greg Pigg had 11.
Hepp wasn't surprised that Grafton was able to make adjustments over the course of the last seven or eight games. He credits that all to Maronde, who won two state titles with the Blackhawk girls.
"He's been around long enough that if you give him enough time (eight days to prepare for this game), he'll find a way," said Hepp.
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