After an ugly 14-game losing streak during the regular season, few expected No. 11-seeded Nicolet to cause problems once the postseason started. After two upsets in the playoffs, including one over defending WIAA Division 2 champion Whitefish Bay, the Knights caught everyone’s attention.
Milwaukee Washington wasn't looking past the challenge. A 13-3 run closed out the first half, putting the Knights out of comeback reach as Nicolet fell March 3 in the Division 2 regional final, 70-44. Washington will play Wauwatosa East on Thursday in a sectional semifinal at Waukesha North.
“You have to give credit to Washington,” said Nicolet coach Paul Hepp. “They are a very talented team that came out determined and hungry.”
The second-seeded Purgolders (19-5) were lights out in the first quarter, making five of their first six attempts from the floor racing out to a 13-0 lead. Senior DeAndre Harris scored eight of the 13 including back-to-back three-point shots.
“Nicolet has played extremely well at the start of their last few games,” said Washington coach Jay Kenseth. “I saw them the other night and knew they could be a tough team.”
Washington, the City Conference’s hottest team over the last two weeks, saw its lead disappearing fast, holding just an eight-point lead at 28-20 with two minutes remaining in the first half. Harris responded and closed the first half with a personal 7-0 run.
‘He was hitting shots,” said Hepp. “From my perspective, we just didn’t have that urgency to close out as quickly as we needed to or maybe slide over and take a charge. That gave them a lot of confidence.”
Nicolet finished with 15 turnovers, leading to several easy transition baskets for the Purgolders.
Lone senior starter Corey Smith has led the Knights (8-17) through their impressive post-season run. He had 15 points against Milwaukee Mesmer and six critical points against third-seeded Whitefish Bay.
“Corey has been through a tough season,” said Hepp. “He has battled some injuries but this past month he has turned it up a notch. He has played very well and you can tell he wanted to end on a high note. I give him a ton of credit for how he finished this year.”
Smith attracted a lot of attention from a stringy Washington defense. Smith missed his first six shots from the field before making two free throws late in the third quarter. The two free throws Smith made would be his only points of the game.
“We really wanted to take away their driving ability,” said Harris who finished with a game-high 25 points. “They are a tough team and have been playing some great ball lately.”
Critical role players for the Knights were limited. Greg Pigg, Treland Jenkins and Nolan Wagner, who usually contribute nearly 20 points per game combined, accounted for only three points. The lone three points came on a three-pointer by Pigg late in the fourth quarter.
“At halftime, I looked in the score book and noticed three of our starters had yet to score,” said Hepp. “Obviously that’s not something you go into a game looking to have.”
Junior Eugene Bonner was impressive, scoring 15 points in the first half, but was a focus of attention in the second half and was only able to attempt three shots, making two of them to finish with 19 points. Tyler Miller scored seven of his 10 points in the second half for Nicolet.