Like Nicolet girls basketball coach Corey Wolf said, every team's identity is different than that of the previous year's team's team, no matter how few or in the case of the Knights, how many have graduated.
"That's because everybody brings a little something different to the table,' she said.
And in the case of the Knights on Tuesday afternoon, the difference was junior forward Briana Gray, a transfer who arrived from Mississippi, with a great deal of humility (lots of 'yes, sir's' and 'no ma'am's'), a steep learning curve and a tremendous amount of talent.
Gray demonstrated a great deal of all three qualities in the Knights' 52-44 quarterfinal win over host Franklin in the Christine Rathke Memorial Tournament.
That was especially true in the second half, when she and veteran guards Brittney Fair and Courtney Smith kick-started an 11-2 run to begin the third quarter that eliminated a 22-21 half-time deficit and put the Knights ahead for good.
Gray had 14 of her game-high 23 points in the second half, as the Knights, who graduated their entire all-state caliber front line last season, remained unbeaten at 7-0 while the Sabers fell to 5-1.
Nicolet will play defending tourney champ Pius XI in a 5:15 p.m. semifinal on Wednesday. Pius gave the Knights one of their two losses last season in the semifinals of last year's Rathke.
Middleton, which the Knights beat for the state title last March, will play Oshkosh Lourdes in the other semifinal while Franklin will vie with Waunakee in a 1:45 p.m. consolation semifinal on Wednesday.
Gray said that Wolf's message during the half-time break was simple.
"She said that we needed to step up our defense," Gray said. "She told us that defense is our staple and that the more we work on it, the more it will help our offense. Coach Corey said the way to win is to do that every night."
Just as Nicolet did early in the third, as after struggling mightily in the first half with their shooting (nine of 28), the Knights hit their first six attempts in the third to break the game open.
By the time the outburst was through, Nicolet had a 34-25 advantage it would not relinquish.
To Sabers' coach Tony Kathrens, it was a pattern he had seen before in his young, quick and talented team. Something it had been able to overcome in its previous games, but not tonight against the defending state champions.
"We've talked about the third quarter again and again with the kids," said Kathrens. "The problems we have there are starting to become an issue. We give them the fire and brimstone speech but it just doesn't stick."
"We missed too many easy shots and too many free throws (five of 12 in the second half). You can't do that and be successful against a team like Nicolet. We just forgot who we were were for a quarter while Nicolet remembered that they were still the champs."
Fair had the first five points of the half, including a three-pointer from the wing, en route to her 13-point effort.
The lead reached 39-27 on a three-pointer from Smith (12 points) at the 3:14 mark of the third, but the Sabers, who were WIAA sectional champions in their own right last season, did not fold.
A late period burst, highlighted by a base-line three-pointer from guard Katie Nord (12 points) with three seconds left, that was was preceded by three offensive rebounds by Franklin, cut the margin to 39-33 at the end of the stanza.
It looked like the Knights were safe at the start of the fourth, however, when Gray hit a putback of her own and Fair downed two free throws to make it 43-33 with 6:53 left, but Wolf noted that she was not thrilled with how her team played with the lead and she had a point.
Franklin scored six straight points highlight by a deft inbounds lay-up from forward Cassidy Mihalko (team-high 13 points) to cut the deficit to 43-39 with 4:44 left.
A critical exchange followed, with Gray at its center, that finally gave the Knights' some breathing room. The Sabers forced a turnover with a chance to cut the margin to two, but a scrum at mid-court followed and the ball soon found its way back into Gray's hands for a lay-up at the 3:57 mark to make it 45-39.
The deficit would never get below five again as Nicolet helped itself with seven of nine second half free throws.
"We missed too many lay-ups and easy shots,'" said Wolf, "but if we're working to get the easy shot, I can live with those. We struggled at the end of this game. We fouled them, we missed shots and we didn't box out."
"We're establishing our own way this year and that's winning ugly. Still, this was a great character effort. We have high character kids who find a way to win."
"No two teams are ever alike. Some years you have better basketball players than others. We're not going to compare this year's team to last year's."
Especially when she's dealing with a new addition like Gray.
"I think we work together as a team to try and find the open person," Gray said. "Tonight I just happened to be playing the spot that was open. I was just trying to be efficient."
Too efficient as far as Kathrens was concerned.
"They've got great athletes," he said, "and we have to respond to their pressure a little better than we did. That transfer for them (Gray) was very impressive in the third and fourth quarters. She had her way with us."
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