The saddest sound that reverberated through Nicolet boys basketball coach Paul Hepp's head during the Knights' often frustrating season-ending 52-46 WIAA sectional semifinal loss to Milwaukee King Thursday night was not the final horn, but the whistle that ended the third quarter.
Nicolet had fallen prey to the Generals' trapping, pressing defense and trailed, 38-21, with 3:09 remaining in the third.
But from that point forward, the Knights took control of the Al McGuire Center on the Marquette University campus, forcing several turnovers out of King and going on a 13-0 to close the gap to 38-34 by the end of the quarter.
"That really was it," he said. "It would have been nice to play right through it like they do in college (with two 20-minute halves). Who knows how far we would have gotten in a situation like that. ...I tell you, most everybody in the place would have expected the game to have been over by that point (at 38-21), except the guys on our bench. I commend them for that. They really battled back."
King (17-6) advanced to a sectional final for the right to go to the state tournament back at the McGuire Center on Saturday at 1 p.m.against the winner of Marquette-Milwaukee Washington while the Knights ended their season at 17-8.
Nerves got the better of both teams at the start as they combined for seven turnovers before a shot was lifted to the basket.
Nicolet finally got leads of 2-0 and 4-2 on hoops from Christian Griggs-Williams and Clem Robinson, but then the Generals outscored them 14-2 the rest of the quarter, as the Knights committed six turnovers against the high-intensity full-court defense of King.
"I think nerves got the best of us in the first couple of minutes," said Hepp. "We had a couple of opportunities inside to gain momentum and another lead, but we couldn't take advantage. The effort was always there, it was just that our shots were a few inches off the mark, the passes a foot or so too high."
Nicolet got a 3-pointer from Myles Henry (nine points) and a layup from Terence Bradley to cut the deficit to 25-17 at the break.
Back-to-back hoops from Henry and Griggs-Williams made the score 28-21 early in the third, but then the Generals went on a 10-0 run to give themselves the biggest lead of the night at 38-21.
Two treys in a row from Jarel James (11 points) highlighted Nicolet's subsequent outburst. Two free throws off an intentional foul from Robinson cut the margin to 38-34.
But that would be as far as the Knights would get.
In the first two minutes of the fourth quarter, Nicolet had four chances to cut the deficit even further, but could not cash in. The Generals' Quintrell Rowe finally hit two free throws with 5:50 remaining to end a King scoring drought of 5:19 and make it 40-34. Nicolet would miss its first eight shots of the fourth period as King stretched the lead out to 42-34.
Nicolet fought back one more time, as a drive from Robinson closed the gap to 47-43 with 38 seconds left. But the foul trouble that had bothered the Knights all game long finally caught up with them.
Griggs-Williams had fouled out with 2:10 left, while Henry was sent to the bench for the last time at the 1:05 mark and Robinson joined them with 23 seconds remaining. The Generals would hit 14 of 19 free throws in the fourth quarter.
"Give King credit," said Hepp. "They did the things they needed to do down the stretch and (Arroyo) Edwards (12 points) did a nice job. It was good that that our kids got a chance to play in a place as special as this. We won some big games this year. We just couldn't get this one."
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