Lakeland Union High School has been the class of the Great Northern Conference girls' basketball scene for much of the past two years.
The Thunderbirds are the lone team yet to lose a game within the conference and only one of its first seven games were decided by single digits.
On Friday, however, Lakeland received a visit from the second place team in the GNC, Rhinelander, which had just one loss in conference to play and that was to its host.
It was a game between the two highest scoring teams in the conference and the four highest scorers in the conference. Often great players are defined by what they do in crucial moments of crucial games.
Lakeland junior Melissa Bruckner - fresh off a 42-point performance earlier in the week - leads the GNC in scoring and she scored 13 points in the first half to help her team build a five-point lead at the break.
She was held to just four points in the second half as the teams traded baskets and leads. Then with her team down by two points with two minutes to play, Bruckner came alive.
Bruckner knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers, scored 10 points in a row and a game-high 25 to help propel Lakeland to a 65-63 win over Rhinelander.
"She's competitive so when you're picking teams, you want her on your team. So I'm glad she's on ours," LUHS head coach Melissa Ouimette said. "I knew they were going to double and triple-team her. Every time she touched the ball there wasn't just one person on her, but there were two more sagging off her. She was looking for any opening she could find, but when push came to shove, she just created some."
With Rhinelander focusing on Bruckner and one of the best defenders in the GNC, Alayna Franson, pestering Abby Parris, the second leading scorer in the conference, Lakeland needed to find other sources of offense in the second half.
The T-Birds got that offense from a trio of seniors. Riley Curtis, Olivia Killian and Zoey Ziebart combined 27 points in the game, with 14 coming in the second half to help keep the team afloat until Bruckner got going.
"Olivia Killian made some nice shots, some nice hard cuts, Zoey Ziebart looked to rip and get to the rim, Riley Curtis was looking for her shot," Ouimette said. "I told those girls in practice last night, 'You have to score.' They knew they had to come out tonight and do that. They made some great plays, beautiful baskets and it all led to the big 'W.'"
Despite everything, Lakeland could not find a way to put Rhinelander away for good.
Rhinelander had a chance to tie it with a little more than a minute to play, but missed and Bruckner turned it into a coast-to-coast layup.
The Lady Hodags hung around thanks to some turnovers and four made free throws in a row - on a night in which they went 9 for 22 from the line - to cut the lead to three with 10.2 seconds left.
Bruckner missed the front end of a 1-and-1, Franson gobbled up the rebound, but her pass was stolen by Parris. The sophomore was fouled and knocked down a pair of free throws to seal the game.
"Rhinelander's a great team. I've always thought they were right up there at the top," Ouimette said. "Before the season started people were picking Medford for second, us for first, but in my mind, Rhinelander was right up there. They're a great team, (coach) Ryan (Clark) does a great job. Hats off for a great game."
Kenedy Van Zile made a 3-pointer at the buzzer as part of her team-high 24 points and nine rebounds. Ally Seefeldt battled foul trouble in the first half before scoring 15 points and grabbing seven rebounds, while Maddie Meyer added 12 points and nine boards.
Bruckner had seven rebounds to go with her 25 points, while Parris had 13 points, Killian added 10 and Curtis and Ziebart had nine and eight, respectively for Lakeland, who is now in firm control of the GNC standings.
The T-Birds, now winners of 25 conference games in a row, have a two-game lead in the standings. With four games remaining, a second consecutive GNC crown is theirs to lose.
"I think our conference is doing a great job. Our conference is strong and it's getting stronger," Ouimette said. "If you watch some of the youth teams and how they play, our conference is going to be strong for years to come and I'm excited to be a part of it. We just have to keep playing hard. My girls want to win conference and that's what they have their hopes set on."
Lakeland (13-5, 8-0 GNC) is next in action at Tomahawk on Friday at 6 p.m. The 1,000-point watch is also in effect as Bruckner is just 28 points shy of reaching the milestone for her career.
Nick Sabato may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @SabatoNick.