Nicolet senior point guard Courtney Smith hates it when people talk about her defending state championship team in the past tense as if it doesn't have a chance at working its way back into the elite again.
"A lot of people doubt us," she said, "and I really don't know why they do that, because we still have a very talented team."
And she and the Knights kept adding concrete fact to her solidly-walled off opinion, as evidenced by Saturday's impressive and thrilling 48-47 victory over Greater Metro Conference co-favorite DSHA.
In that game, the shorter, but quicker Knights rallied from a 10-point first quarter deficit, and rode the death-defying offensive exploits of senior shooting guard Brittney Fair, who had 30 points to lead all scorers. It was her third 20-plus point game in as many tries for the 3-0 Nicolet squad.
"We just had to go out and start playing Nicolet basketball," said Fair of of the poor start. "We just had to keep playing hard until we could find our way back."
And it didn't take long.
After a stern between quarters lecture from coach Corey Wolf about stopping the individual, me-first attitude that had prevailed in the first period and getting back to a Nicolet brand of team defense, the Knights stymied the longer, more experienced Dashers (4-2) in the second session, outscoring them 14-3 to take a 19-18 half-time lead.
The Knights were able to do this despite highly touted junior forward Briana Gray picking up her third foul just two minutes into the second quarter.
Fair scored the first seven points of that second session, including one of her four three-pointers. Nicolet also scored the last seven of the half, including five by Smith, who despite her diminutive 5-3 stature, played very big, getting one clutch steal after another.
Her theft and lay-up with 18 seconds to go left in the half gave Nicolet its 19-18 advantage, the first Knight lead since Fair's game-opening three.
When asked jokingly if she likes being called a "pest" on court, Smith just laughed and said "I absolutely love it!"
Wolf, a hard-nosed, highly-competitive point guard herself in her playing days at Nicolet more than a decade ago, said that Smith makes it a long night for anyone she is working against.
"I tell you, I would hate being guarded by her," Wolf said.
And the Knights needed Smith's tenacity and Fair's offense plus a whole lot of other help in holding off the Dashers. There were eight lead changes and two ties in the third quarter alone and four lead changes and three ties in the fourth.
The last of those lead changes came with 2:34 left, as Fair hit two free throws to make it 44-42 Nicolet. After a furious exchange, Smith got another steal with Fair getting fouled again. Fair hit one of two tries to make it 45-42 with 1:45 remaining.
The Dashers' highly-touted freshman point guard Arike Ogunbowale then roared past the entire Nicolet defense for two of her 12 points to make it 45-44 with 1:34 left.
Nicolet tried pulling out the ball, and succeeded in getting Fair fouled. She missed the front end of the bonus, but Gray managed to grab the offensive rebound. Reserve guard Sara Travia was eventually fouled with 34 seconds left.
Travia, who spent much of the second half in Ogunbowale's hip pocket on defense, calmly drained two free throws to make it 47-44 Nicolet.
"Sara's just a fighter, she never quits," said Wolf of Travia.
A wild exchnage followed as first Fair blocked a DSHA three-pointer and then Gray did the same herself.
Nicolet eventually pulled down the ball on the far sideline and Fair was fouled with six seconds left. She hit the first of two free throws to make it 48-44 and it was a good thing she did, because Ogunbowale then flung in a desperation three-pointer from well-past 30 feet at the buzzer to give the game its final score.
Wolf, even with her very high standards, was impressed with the effort.
"This was a character game," she said. "It wasn't pretty at times, but we found a way to win. ...We're still learning about ourselves here. The kids are picking things up quickly. We hope to be a much different team than we are two weeks from now."
She praised many people including power forward Lanoira Duhart who logged many tough minutes when Gray was in foul trouble. Duhart grabbed many key rebounds and played tough defense.
Wolf then gave credit to her two veteran guards, the only two starters back from the state champions of last March.
"A couple things make this special," she said. "We have great leaders out there (in Fair and Smith). If you don't have leadership, everyone starts to look at one another. We just came out with more energy (in that second quarter) because of them and we were able to build off that."
Smith noted that it's all part of a process.
"Everyone is getting acclimated to one another," she said. "...and a win like this gives us confidence. I really think all the other girls are starting to understand the game better. ...Everyone is working hard trying to play Nicolet-style basketball."
Which includes big wins like this one.
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