Better late than never.
Nicolet’s girls basketball team struggled through the better part of the first three quarters of the WIAA Division 1 girls basketball state championship game Saturday night, but turned it on when it mattered most.
The Knights finished the game on a 21-11 run, which was just enough to knock off a feisty Middleton team, 58-54.
“Definitely Middleton is one of the best teams we’ve played this year,” Nicolet head coach Corey Wolf said. “They are just tough and they have so many kids. … I thought they got the looks they wanted in the first half and we didn’t dictate them as well as we could have — and that’s what we tried to fix at halftime.”
It took a while, but those adjustments finally paid off for the Knights (27-2).
Led by the hot shooting of junior Brittney Fair and an increase of pressure on defense, Nicolet flipped a switch that couldn’t be turned off in the fourth.
“Once we picked up our defense and were able to stop (Middleton guard Kerry) Gardner, I mean — she made us work real hard in the first half,” Nicolet senior Ashley Green said. “But when we came out of halftime we all kind of had a lot more energy and once we started picking up our defense it kind of just flowed, our offense just worked. Once you start getting easy baskets and stuff like that your emotions go high and are crazy.”
Nicolet took its first lead of the game with 5:27 remaining in the fourth quarter on a layup by Fair.
The Cardinals (26-2) fought back to take a one-point edge with just under three minutes left, but the Knights continued their electric attack that ignited the Kohl Center.
With 19.6 seconds remaining, Fair stepped to the free throw line and calmly knocked down both shots to give her team a three-point advantage in what proved to be the deciding points.
“It was all confidence,” Fair said of her final points. “Coach has been saying ‘it’s all mental and just knock them down; they’re free.’ The past couple games I’ve been missing clutch free throws so just to come in here and make those two free throws, it was big.”
This was the third game in three days for the Knights, as their Super Tuesday game was moved to Thursday due to weather.
Despite the number of minutes played in that span, coach Wolf said she didn’t mind the short turnaround.
“When you’re playing well, you want to play games,” Wolf said. “You don’t want to come back and practice for a couple days. When you’re playing well, you want to get on the court.”
In the end, the star-studded team that had faltered in previous postseasons finally reached the goal that had eluded them despite successful seasons the past three years.
“(It’s) a dream come true,” Green said. “It’s been a long run, since freshman year, just the things we’ve done during the off season and during the season; sacrifices we’ve made as a team, it’s unreal to actually believe that we’re state champs right now.”
Coach Wolf said it was an exciting moment.
“I think you saw it at the end of the game," Wolf said. "When the buzzer sounded, all our kids had tears in their eyes. All our coaches had tears in their eyes. Our managers had tears in their eyes.
“We talked from day one this year, our goal was to win a state championship and these kids have put some much time into this. It was very emotional.”
Green led the way for the Knights with 17 points while Fair and senior Ashley Cohen added 13 and 14, respectively.