The Nicolet boys basketball team saw its journey to sectionals cut short by powerhouse Beaver Dam, 66-56, on Saturday night in the WIAA Division 2 regional final.

Beaver Dam’s Garrett Nelson was simply too much to overcome as the top-seeded Golden Beavers (23-1) fought off a fiery effort from the No. 4-seeded Knights (14-10).

“It’s good to face a test like this now,” Nelson said. “It’s only going to help you going forward.”

Beaver Dam faces No. 2-seeded Cedarburg at the Hartford sectional 7 p.m. Thursday. Cedarburg escaped No. 3-seeded Brown Deer, 71-70.

Nicolet dug itself into a hole early and fell behind, 17-8, in the opening minutes. The Knights trailed at halftime, 27-17, but a full-court press defensive strategy throughout most of the second half caused problems for Beaver Dam.

“We did not come with the intensity I would have liked to see for those first 18 minutes,” Nicolet head coach Allan Hansen said. “It makes it hard to crawl out of a hole like that. I’m not disappointed in these guys. Beaver Dam is a great team, and we’re trying to build a program here. These seniors gave us everything they had.”

The Knights battled a double-digit deficit most of the game but surged late to make things interesting. The intensity peaked when Nicolet pulled within 57-52 with 2:04 to play after a drive to the lane from junior guard Jeremy Ninham. Nicolet freshman forward Jamari Sibley came up with a steal on the ensuing inbounds pass but couldn’t convert on a shot from the paint.

Nelson made Nicolet pay with a drive of his own and converted the and-one foul shot at the 1:19 mark. Nicolet kept charging but ran out of time in a dead-even second half.

“I knew they would make a run at us at some point,” Beaver Dam head coach Tim Ladron said. “I don’t know if it was the press. We’ve seen pressure like that before, but then again most teams don’t have a guy who’s 6-9 (Sibley) leading the press. It was just something they brought in the second half. Anything can happen in the tournament. They’re good, and they came right at us.”

Despite the fast, physical style of play, the officiating crew let the contact go for the most part.

“We’re an hour from home,” Hansen said. “You expect it to be that way. You have to play as if you’re not going to get any breaks; you assume every close call is going their way. There are always calls you can argue, but it’s never an excuse at the end.”

And in the end, the floor general was the difference. Nelson came up with two scrambling steals after converting the game-sealing 3-point play, and each time, he had the awareness to immediately call timeout and regroup.

“I’ve played in a lot of tight games like this,” Nelson said. “In my first couple of years, I probably made some not very good decisions at the end of games, but I owe it to the coaching staff for giving me those chances to make mistakes. It’s games like this where you have to grind them out, and it’s in the playoffs, where you really learn something about who you are.”

Cedarburg’s matchup with Beaver Dam is the first meeting between the two since the regional final two seasons ago, but Cedarburg’s roster is largely the same. Five of six players who logged minutes remain on the roster.

“It’s very rare that you’re led by the exact same group of guys for three seasons,” Ladron said. “We have a lot of film on them. They’re very good. It’s going to be interesting.”