There's a lot been anticipated about this year's edition of the Nicolet girls basketball team.
But for the time being, the Knights will settle for a little more concentration on the here and now, as Muskego almost vaporized a 17-point second half lead by Nicolet in the NY2LA Classic at Pius XI Friday afternoon before the defending North Shore champs held on behind Ashley Green's 34 points for a 59-57 victory.
"Was it really 17 points?," asked Nicolet coach Corey Wolf. "It never really felt like it. We only have 10 players on the team and one was out sick (senior guard Sam Lautmann) and then we ran into foul trouble. But I tell you, our kids playing off the bench (like Becca Olin and Brianna Achs) did a great job on defense. They really played their roles well. We would not have won this game without them."
The Knights (1-0) will play defending state champion Milwaukee Vincent at 8:45 p.m. Saturday night. The third annual NY2LA event is being played at Nicolet and Pius this year. The Knight boys are currently taking on Kenosha Tremper (8:30 p.m. tip-off) and will challenge Marquette in an 8:30 p.m. contest on Saturday.
But the girls drew centerstage at Pius on Friday, and with former Lady Popes All-American Heidi Bunek Hamilton in attendance, Nicolet and Muskego played an entertaining tilt.
With experienced hands like juniors Gaby Bronson and Achs and sophomore Brittney Fair battling early foul trouble, the 5-11 junior Green took control for the Knights with 23 first half points. Nicolet had a 6-0 lead out of the gate, but faltered late in the first period, as the Warriors with veteran and confident players, some of whom had a hand in their recent WIAA state girls volleyball title, secured a 16-15 advantage by period's end.
And after the Warriors' Rachel Neuberger hit a backdoor lay-up at the 7:27 mark of the second quarter, Muskego had an 18-15 lead. But that would be the last field goal of the half for the Warriors as they would miss 17 shots in a row and be limited to just two free throws the rest of the session.
In the interim, the game became Green's playground as she would score 14 of the Knights' 18 points in the period, including two three-pointers, as Nicolet roared out to a 33-20 halftime advantage.
"I don't think I've ever had a game like that," said Green, who has been playing on the varsity since her freshmen year. "Coach just told me to be confident and ready. We really try to concentrate on looking for the open player and making the extra pass."
After Bronson hit a free throw and Green another three-pointer to open the third period, the advantage was 37-20, but the foul trouble quickly accelerated as Bronson picked up her third foul and Achs her third and fourth in relatively short order.
A 7-0 Warriors' run cut the margin to 37-27 with 4:35 remaining in the third and a 7-2 effort at the end of the period got it down to 43-35.
"We knew they'd come back," said Wolf. "We just had to regroup."
But that became harder to do than to say.
Point guard Courtney Smith hit her head in a collision late in the third quarter and had to come out for some time. Then at the start of the fourth quarter, 6-5 junior center Alex Cohen, who blocked several shots in the game, picked up her third and fourth fouls in short order, while Bronson earned her final two fouls almost as quickly. To make matters worse, Achs, who was subbing for Bronson, also fouled out.
All told, Muskego would hit 17 of 20 free throws in the second half. Nicolet, despite all that, kept it a five-to-nine point lead for much of the second half, but the final two minutes got harrowing.
The Warriors talented Katie Ellerson (21 points) hit a drive and teammate Allysa Colla nailed two free throws to make it 56-55 with 2:12 remaining. Nicolet then ran some time off the clock as Smith, who came back early in the fourth quarter, hit one of two free throws to make it 57-55 with 50 seconds remaining. The Knights would be 13 of 18 from the foul line in the second half.
Green then rebounded an Ellerson miss and got fouled, where her free throw made it 58-55 with 35 seconds left. Muskego's Sarah Mlachnik hit two charity tosses herself to make it 58-57 with 16 seconds on the clock.
After a timeout, Muskego put on a trap and forced a traveling violation. With their first chance at the lead since the early part of the second quarter, the Warriors' Ellerson drove hard to the basket, but her shot rolled out. Cohen grabbed the rebound and was fouled. She made one of two free throws with 5.8 seconds left to make it 59-57.
The Warriors called timeout with 2.8 seconds remaining but could not get off a good shot.
Wolf was happy to have someone like Green on her side in the stretch.
"Ashley is a competitor in games and in practice," she said. "She knew that the team needed her. She stepped it up and took advantage of the opportunities that were available to her. She kept us in the game."
"We expect a lot out of ourselves," Green added. "A lot of people are talking about state (the WIAA tournament), but we can't control that right now. Right now, we just want to get better so we can get to the level we want to be at."
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