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Arrowhead knocks out Nicolet

March 15, 2012

There will be a new champion in WIAA Division 1 girls basketball. Arrowhead hopes to fill the vacancy.

The Warhawks girls basketball team hit 11 of 12 free throws in the fourth quarter and held off a second-half charge from defending state champion Nicolet, earning a 49-44 victory at Waukesha South in Thursday's sectional semifinal.

Jenny Smith scored 22 points, including two go-ahead free throws with 38.5 seconds to play that accounted for the eighth and final lead change of the fourth quarter. The senior All-State candidate also hauled in 12 rebounds.

It was a far cry from the 55-22 shellacking Nicolet dished out against Arrowhead at the same stage of the postseason last year.

"Losing by 33 at the end of the season was one of the worst feelings," Smith said. "We all decided that it was not going to happen again."

Second-seeded Nicolet graduated a trio of superb seniors from that squad last year but still brought a 21-3 record into the sectional, matching top-seeded Arrowhead's ledger. Brittney Fair, a junior starter on last year's state champion and one of the area's top scorers this year, scored 9 points in the first four minutes of the second half to lift her team back into the game after Arrowhead had dominated the first half. She finished with 20.

"Brittney Fair is an absolutely unbelievable 3-point shooter; she's smooth and can create her own offense, which she did," Arrowhead coach Heidi Hamilton said. "We knew there was a storm coming, but we've had a lot of close games this year, so we've been able to experience that and keep our composure."

Arrowhead led at one point in the first half, 22-11, and took a nine-point lead into halftime. Until a basket in the final seconds, the Knights had as many points (11) as turnovers.

"I don't think we were focused," said Nicolet coach Corey Wolf. "We lost our focus in the first half; we were doing a lot of standing, a lot of reaching. Once we came out at halftime, we settled down a little bit and played our game.

"They take pride in their defense, and sometimes they need little reminders."

Message received. The Knights had two forced turnovers and five points in the first minute of the third quarter, and when Fair capped a personal 7-0 run with a steal and putback at the 4:10 mark of the third, Nicolet had grabbed a 29-27 lead.

The Warhawks clawed back to take a three-point lead after the third quarter, but Fair tied the game with a triple in the first 10 seconds of the fourth. That's when the back-and-forth began, with Jenny's sophomore sister Kelly Smith scoring six straight Arrowhead points at one point.

Nicolet took its last lead on a basket by Lanoira Duhart with 45 seconds left, 44-43, but the Warhwaks scored the game's final six points at the free-throw line. Nicolet was penalized with offensive fouls at the 15-second mark as it looked for a go-ahead basket and again with 4 seconds left looking for a tie.

For the game, Arrowhead hit 18 of 21 from the charity stripe.

"I always talk about how the road to the state tournament is survival of the mentally tough," said Hamilton, referring to the free-throw shooting. "When you're in the Sweet 16 like we are, everyone has the same skill base. It's who has it mentally, so we've been working on visualization with the girls and the mental part of the game."

The reward is a battle with De Pere (21-4) on Saturday at Sheboygan North, with the winner advancing to the state tournament in Madison.

"We had been focused on this time since last March when we lost to them," Hamilton said. "To come back and beat them is just huge."

For Wolf, it's an unusual feeling after last year's state title crusade.

"We know how Arrowhead feels about us; we know they were looking for a little revenge after their loss last year, we were well aware of that," she said. "And I thought they really took it at us in the first half. In the second half, we put a little more pressure on them defensively. Once we started hitting a couple, we went with it.

"They should be proud of themselves," she added of her Nicolet squad. "They kept setting the bar higher and higher. They kept pushing themselves to get better, they didn't settle. We hit a bump in the road when we lost three of four, and we didn't let that get us down. We have great captains, great seniors and the other kids follow their lead."

Courtney Smith added 10 points for Nicolet. Both Smith and Fair spent much of the fourth quarter with four fouls but did not leave the floor and did not pick up a fifth.

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