There would be no last-second heroics.
No clutch shot or defensive stand was going to save Elkhorn this time.
Nicolet was just too good.
After looking indecisive and sluggish for most of the first half, the Knights put all their talent and athleticism on display. They pulled away with a dominant second half to defeat the Elks 70-46 in a WIAA Division 2 state semifinal Friday at the Kohl Center.
Fourth-seeded Elkhorn used a 13-0 run in the first half to scare top-ranked Nicolet and take a five-point lead, but the Knights regained the lead just before halftime and didn’t let up.
“We had to play pretty perfect to be in the game against these guys,” Elkhorn coach Josh Skatrud said. “In the first half we were right there. We had a chance to get them doubting a bit.”
Elkhorn had pulled off three straight upsets to reach the state tournament.
That included thrilling last-second wins over Westosha Central and Mount Horeb. The Elks finished 23-4—their best record since the 2008-09 season.
Nicolet (27-1) will face second-seeded Milwaukee Washington in the state championship Saturday night. The Knights have won 27 straight games against in-state opponents.
The Knights are one win from securing a gold ball that’s seemingly had their name penciled on it since last July. That’s when Jalen Johnson, one of the top junior prospects in the nation, announced he and his brother, Kobe, would be transferring from Sun Prairie—bolstering a Nicolet program that already had a highly-regarded player in Jamari Sibley and was coming off a 16-win season.
A super team was born.
But the Knights looked anything but in the first half of Friday’s semifinal.
Elkhorn scored 13 straight points to climb out of a 10-5 hole midway through the first half. The Elks led by as many as five points, with Devon Davey’s floating shot in the lane producing a 24-19 lead with 3:19 left in the half.
Elkhorn led for just more than seven minutes in the first half.
“We got running in transition and we finished our layups. Our game plan was working,” said Elkhorn senior Luke Umnus, whose slashing layup with 1 second left in last Saturday’s sectional final sent the Elks to state for the first time since 1987.
Umnus led the Elks with 11 points on 6-of-13 shooting, adding four rebounds and four assists. Nick Brown and Chance Larson each had seven points, while Davey and Vince Umnus each contributed six.
The Elks limited Jalen Johnson to eight first-half points on 3-of-9 shooting. Nicolet shot just 30 percent inside the arc in the first half.
Kobe Johnson scored 20 points, while Jalen still managed to score 16 points despite shooting 35.3 percent. The 6-foot-9 forward with offers from many of the nation’s top Division 1 programs, including Duke, Kansas and Kentucky, added 11 rebounds and four steals.
“Defensively, our strategy was no free entries into the paint,” Skatrud said. “It was build a wall around there. It gave Jalen some trouble, as good as he is. We were able to frustrate them.
“It worked until it didn’t.”
Nicolet turned up its defensive pressure and scored the last six points before halftime, punctuated by James Graham’s two-handed dunk with 2 seconds left, to take a 25-24 lead.
“I wanted to wake our guys up and get to playing the type of tempo we’re used to,” Nicolet coach Allan Hanson said of the run.
Senior guard Sonny Phinisee scored six straight points coming out of the break to help the Knights open up a nine-point lead with 14:30 left.
“Our depth and our length and our speed wears teams down,” Hanson said.
Nicolet continued to widen its advantage over the final minutes. Sibley, who scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting, dunked through traffic to make it 60-37 with 4:30 remaining.
The Knights would win their first state championship by beating Washington today. The Purgolders held off La Crosse Central, 71-70 in overtime, in Friday’s other semifinal.
Elkhorn, led by the senior core of the Umnus twins and Larson, completed a program turnaround by advancing to the state tournament three years after winning just six games during the 2015-16 season.
“They were hungry and kept getting better, even when they received some tough feedback,” Skatrud said of his players.
But beating a team as super as Nicolet was always going to be a monumental challenge.
• Despite a significant disadvantage in size, Elkhorn out-rebounded Nicolet 15-9 in the first half. The Knights reversed that deficit in the second half, out-rebounding the Elks 20-7.
• Kobe Johnson shot 30 percent from the field but made all 13 of his free-throw attempts.
• Nicolet made 17 of its 18 free-throw attempts, while Elkhorn made just 1 of 4.
• Elkhorn shot 51.2 percent from the field but just 27.3 percent (3 of 11) from 3-point range.
• Nicolet was making its first state appearance since 1993.
NICOLET 70, ELKHORN 46
Elkhorn (46)—Jo. Johnson 2-0-4, Larson 3-1-7, L. Umnus 6-0-13, Davey 3-0-6, V. Umnus 3-0-6, Buelow 1-0-3, Brown 3-0-7. Totals: 21-1-46.
Nicolet (70)—K. Johnson 3-13-20, Ja. Johnson 6-4-16, Bolden 1-0-2, Henderson 1-0-2, Sibley 6-0-13, Phinisee 3-0-6, Hayes 3-0-6, Graham 2-0-5. Totals: 25-17-70.
Elkhorn 24 22—46
Nicolet 25 45—70
3-point goals—Elkhorn 3 (L. Umnus, Buelow, Brown), Nicolet 3 (K. Johnson, Sibley, Graham). Free throws missed—Elkhorn 3, Nicolet 1. Total fouls—Elkhorn 16, Nicolet 10. Fouled out—V. Umnus.