Too tall a task for Port Washington

Nicolet shows why it’s nationally ranked in blowing out the Pirates in sectional semifinal
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington High School senior Adam Baierl is as quick with his references for perspective as he is his lightning-quick decisions as a point guard.

Not long after an 81-57, season-ending loss to nationally ranked Nicolet last Thursday in a Division 2 sectional semifinal in a packed field house in Brown Deer, Baierl, a four-year varsity player, noted how far the Pirates’ program has come.

“Coming from a freshman year when we won two games to this year when we made the sectional semifinal — it’s a huge turnaround,” he said.

The team had nine seniors whose veteran leadership helped carry the Pirates to a third win over rival Cedarburg in the first round of the playoffs and two upset victories against higher seeds on the road in West Bend East and Plymouth.

Baierl mentioned “the team chemistry that we all had, and the seniors really stuck together this year.”

The Pirates finished 15-11, their best finish since advancing to the sectional final in 2014.

“This loss takes nothing away from our season at all. We had a great year, a great group of seniors, awesome leadership. It just was a lot of fun coaching these guys,” coach Brian Hebein said.

Against the Knights — whose only loss on the season came to another highly ranked team out of state — the Pirates fell behind early, 29-7, in the game’s first nine minutes.

The Knights’ lineup features one of the nation’s top 2020 recruits in 6-feet-9-inch Jalen Johnson and Division 1 recruit 6-9 Jamari Sibley, along with four other players 6-4 or taller, all with Plastic Man-like arms to boot.

The Knights put on a press early and the Pirates struggled to run their offense. Even normal passes became difficult chores.

“You can’t simulate that length in practice. You can put six guys out there, seven guys out there it doesn’t matter,” Hebein said.

The first half featured several Knights’ fast breaks and electrifying slam dunks. Nicolet was up 50-23, at the break.

The Pirates battled the height differential — their tallest players are 6-6 Noah Melka and 6-5 Isaac McKinney.

“We tried a 2-3 (zone) and packing it in and see if they’d miss shots from the outside, and they didn’t,” Hebein said.

“In the second half we just said we’ve got to go out, play man to man, be physical, be who we are.”

The overmatched Pirates never got closer than 24. It was the third time the Knights beat their North Shore Conference opponents this season.
Baierl didn’t let the pressure of a big crowd get to him and led Port with 16 points.

“No stage is too big for him. He doesn’t care. He just goes out and competes and competes all day long. He’s a true leader and he’ll play at the next level and do really well,” Hebein said.

Junior sharpshooter Evan Lilly scored 14 points and hit four three-pointers.

“He shot darn near 62% from three in the playoffs,” Hebein said.

“He missed a couple early. Other players might get nervous or stop shooting. Evan’s got a heart, he’s got courage. He’ll keep taking the big shots and got a couple to fall.”

Senior Nolan Mueller scored 11 points. After not growing up a basketball fan, the sport became a passion four years ago.

“Once I got to high school I really found good coaches,” he said. “It’s been tremendous. It’s been a huge part of my life.”

Jake Lippe, Port’s other four-year varsity player, battled the Knights’ big men down low with a fractured wrist. He scored two points.

“It was tough because they’re very big but I tried my best and I think I did it to the best of my ability,” he said.

He was quickly able to reflect on his career.

“It’s been unbelievable. I’ve played four years and every year’s been amazing, especially this year the run we made in the playoffs. It was something special,” he said.

Hebein praised Lippe’s toughness to play with his injury.

“He’s just been gutting it out. It was just grit, will to get through it,” he said.

McKinney, who has missed most of the season due to injury, scored six points.

“He came in tonight and he gave us a lift. He played really well, hung in there and did some good stuff,” Hebein said.

Seniors Marcus Schmit and Brandon Kelling each scored four points.

“We had a good run this year. It didn’t end, obviously, like we wanted, but we had a good run,” Schmit said.

Port’s run included topping Cedarburg two weeks ago, 57-52, behind some clutch plays late by Baierl. Then the No. 7-seeded Pirates blew out No. 2-seeded West Bend East, 68-51, for their first win over the Suns since they joined the NSC. A day later, they won, 59-54, at No. 3-seeded Plymouth.

Last Thursday’s game had a subplot after the Feb. 13 Port vs. Nicolet match-up. Port students held up photos of Johnson with a charcoal facial mask — a skin-care product — that could be construed as blackface, a political lightning rod of late. The photo came from Johnson’s Instagram page.

An unidentified Port parent helped in the printing of the photos.

The incident went viral and accusations of racism and poor sportsmanship followed. Johnson tweeted “UNACCEPTABLE” as a response to the Port students’ actions.

One Port student was suspended and unspecified action was taken against the parent. A group of eight Port students who were involved sent Johnson a letter of apology.

Johnson said that didn’t affect how he prepared to play the Pirates in the playoffs.

“It’s the same mentality going into it. It’s just another day, another game. We’re taking the same approach as a team and personally I’m taking the same approach,” he said.

Hebein distanced his team from the fans’ behavior.

“I’m just super proud of these guys because with all of the attention that was negatively thrown their way that they held their heads really high. Their sportsmanship was unbelievable, even when the student section’s sportsmanship wasn’t that great,” he said.

Nicolet (25-1) went on to beat Kaukauna, 67-44, in the sectional final and faces No. 4-seeded Elkhorn (23-3) on Friday at the state tournament in Green Bay.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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