Ask Whitefish Bay senior guard Lindsey Agnew about what it was like when she had to miss the first game this season with Nicolet because of injury back in January, a 40-34 defeat that was the first of the year for the Blue Dukes and put them in chase mode for the North Shore Conference lead?
"Oh, that just about killed me," she said. "You have no idea how hard that was."
Now ask her what it was like to hit two clutch hoops and a big free throw down the stretch as the Blue Dukes held off Nicolet, 38-35, Friday night and pulled into a share of the North Shore lead with the Knights and Grafton with just one game to play.
"In four years here, we've never beaten Nicolet," she said after scoring a team-high 16 points. "We played so hard just to get them this once. We've talked about the conference title a lot. About how it hasn't happened in six years and how nice it would feel."
"It's great to have this chance."
Coach Greg Capper appreciates it too.
"I've been doing this a long time," he said. "I was happy for the effort they put in tonight."
For Nicolet coach Corey Wolf, whose team has won or shared the last three North Shore Conference titles, she saw something in her team that she hasn't seen much of in recent seasons.
"I think at times tonight we paniced on offense and on defense," he said. "We have one good possession and then give up on the next. I know they only scored 38 points, but I just didn't think our defense was good enough tonight."
'We just had too many breakdowns."
And now the key going into next Thursday, is who among Nicolet, Bay and Grafton will succeed and who will breakdown with a conference title on the line?
Grafton (11-2, 16-4, which was a 43-25 winner over Port Washington tonight, will be at Milwauke Lutheran (1-12, 1-17), while Nicolet (11-2, 17-3) will host Germantown (6-7, 7-13) and Bay (11-2, 17-4) will be at Homestead (3-10, 4-17).
Asked if it was any consolation that her defending WIAA State D1 championship team still controls its own destiny as far as a share of a fourth straight league title is concerned, Wolf was too frustrated to share much joy at the moment.
"I'm not feeling too good about things right now," she said. "Ask me next week."
And she had a point, as a stifling Bay defense and a Blue Duke offense that was aggressive early had the Knights on their heels all evening. Agnew had five points in a 7-0 run that made it 11-5 in the first quarter.
Nicolet in that time was in the midst of an ugly 0-15 streak from the field, but because of the Knights own stout defense and the Blue Dukes inability to hit some point blank shots, it was only 15-11 Bay at the break.
Two free throws by Elisabeth Johnston gave Bay it's largest lead of the night at 17-11 early in the third quarter, but the Knights showed some late energy in the period, as they used an effective half-court trap to force the Blue Dukes into five turnovers in the period.
Knight guard Brittney Fair (game high 22 points) hit a three-pointer and Briana Gray (10 points) scored on a steal to give Nicolet a 27-26 lead going into the fourth quarter.
It was their first advantage since 5-4.
But as Wolf noted, Nicolet could never get a "cushion."
Bay started the fourth quarter with an 8-3 run, as center Maya Jonas scored six of her 15 points, four of them on tough jumpers, as the Blue Dukes took a 34-30 lead with 2:55 left.
Fair knocked down a shot from the wing with 2:30 remaining to cut the deficit to two, but then Agnew answered just 21 seconds later with a big baseline jumper to make it 36-32 Bay.
Both teams squandered opportunities over the next 1:30, before Fair hit a big three-pointer from the wing to make it 36-35 with just 35 seconds left.
Agnew then hit one of two free throws with 14 seconds to go as Bay clung to a 37-35 advantage.
"We always talk about hitting free throws when it counts," she said. "I would have liked two, but I only got one."
That gave a window of opportunity to Nicolet, as Fair drove in and was fouled with 5.9 seconds to go. But she missed the first throw and after a timeout, tried to deliberately miss the second, but a Knight line violation gave the ball back to Bay.
Bay's Ava Stock, who along with Maddie Garcia was credited by Capper with some yeoman defensive work in making sure that Fair had to earn all her points this night, then hit one of two free throws to make it 38-35 with three seconds to go.
Fair raced up court and got off a half-court shot that wasn't far of the mark as the buzzer sounded.
And suddenly Bay, which was coming off frustrating losses to both Dominican and Grafton, was just one win from the promised land.
"We took care of the ball a lot better this time around," Capper said. "Against this kind of pressure, you have to take care of the ball, make good shots when you have them and play defense."
"We did that tonight."
Wolf knew that too.
"We had too many mental breakdowns tonight," she said, "and when you play a team that plays that good of defense, you just can't have that. You have to limit their good looks and knock down the shots you do get."
"We hit a lot of long-range shots in the first game against them. We didn't do that this time around and then they just made it very tough for us to score."
Capper knows that his team hasn't won anything yet, but he knows an important win when he sees one.
"This is my fifth year here," he said, "and it's every coach, every program's goal to win a conference title, to be consistent. We're very close now."
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