There was no lack of excitement on Homecoming Weekend for the Milwaukee Women’s basketball team. Kamy Peppler and her teammates made sure of that.
The three-balls were falling at the Klotsche Center this past Sunday, as the Panthers tipped off their first home game of the 2023-24 season. Along the way, Peppler set a new career-high with 25 points, leading a trio of Panthers who all hit for at least 16 points. Though the game ended in defeat for Milwaukee, things were closely contested right up until the final seconds of a high-scoring second half.
Peppler scorched the nets to the tune of six triples on nine tries; she made nine of 14 shots overall and added a team-high six helpers and three steals. Angie Cera’s contributions were especially valuable in the first half, and she finished with 17 points on just nine shot attempts after making all seven of her free throws. Kendall Nead tossed in 16 points of her own, including a flurry in the closing moments.
Last year, Milwaukee saw the short end of a tightly-played 44-43 margin against Illinois-Chicago. Sunday was a different story, as the Flames and Panthers got going offensively and traded blows in the paint and from beyond the arc. On the day, the Panthers shot 52.4% from the land of trey, making 11 deep shots – including eight in the second half.
The game began with an even first quarter. After starting the second quarter at 18-18, Milwaukee ended up stuck on 21 points for almost five minutes, allowing the Flames to pull ahead by a 32-28 advantage at halftime. Cera’s 5/5 from the charity stripe in the first half helped to keep things close.
After the break, Milwaukee began to get their outside attack rolling. Unfortunately, the Flames hit the offensive glass and increased their lead even as Milwaukee head coach Kyle Rechlicz’s crew were bombing away with five triples in the period. The Panthers managed to wrest the lead back to their favor at 42-41 around the midpoint of the quarter, but UIC proceeded to go on a run which saw them finish the period shooting 62.5%. “We had a point range where we wanted to keep UIC per quarter, we accomplished that in three out of four quarters,” Rechlicz reflected postgame. “But we needed a little more defense in the third, if we were able to accomplish that it would have been a game changer for us.” Despite Milwaukee’s barrage, UIC led 57-50 after three.
The Panthers had even more long-range shots yet to knock down, though, and they charged hard in the final quarter to cut down the Flames’ advantage. Milwaukee shot an outstanding 66.7% overall in the final stanza, hitting clutch bucket after clutch bucket to get closer to the lead. Nead hit her second trey with only 12 seconds remaining on the clock, shaving the Flames’ lead down to 71-70. UIC was able to knock down a pair of freebies, though, and the Panthers couldn’t get the equalizer as time expired.
Milwaukee’s tremendous hustle and their efforts from downtown were undone because UIC absolutely pounded the glass for a final tally of 21 offensive boards. After stout senior forward Grace Crowley left the game with an apparent injury after just eight minutes played, UIC swarmed the paint. The Flames translated those reloads and putbacks into a back-breaking 22 second-chance points. Turnovers were a problem as well; after coughing up 20 possessions in their season opener against Wisconsin, the Panthers totaled 23 miscues against UIC.
“We did a lot of things right in today’s game, and if we continue to play like this and clean up our turnovers and the rebounding battle, we’re going to win a lot of games this year,” Rechlicz declared after the game.
Seeing the first game action of her career after Crowley’s exit, freshman post Jorey Buwalda tried to hold down the paint and showed her quality by converting a couple of tough buckets. Buwalda cashed in a contested layup with about 30 seconds left to set the stage for Nead’s late trey to pull things to a 71-70 score. By the final buzzer, the rookie from Randolph, WI, had tallied up six points, six rebounds, and a pair of blocks. Anna Lutz snagged 10 boards of her own, and Milwaukee was active on the glass even as the Flames pressed their advantage. The Panthers were also successful defensively outside of the paint. The increased pressure they showed on defense in their first tilt of the season against Wisconsin continued against UIC. In addition to her five assists and lone turnover, veteran point guard Jada Donaldson and newcomer Vanessa Jurewicz joined Peppler in picking up multiple steals. Additionally, Milwaukee held the Flames to 40.0% shooting from the floor, and a tight 26.7% rate on 3FG tries.
Those defensive efforts – and the Panthers’ efficiency so far on offense – must continue to serve them well, as Milwaukee will cruise on down the Mississippi river this week to participate in the inaugural McNeese MTE tournament in Lake Charles, LA. There, the Panthers will play three games in three days, with contests scheduled against Louisiana-Monroe, the home-standing Cowgirls, and finally Mississippi Valley State. The toughest test may come immediately, as the Warhawks are off to a strong start. New Louisiana-Monroe coach Missy Bilderback reeled in a couple of former starting guards from SEC teams via the transfer portal this summer, and ULM gave Arkansas all it could handle before running away from Miami (OH) in their first two games.
McNeese State, the Panthers’ hosts, struggled defensively a year ago, and are headed by new faces in new places. Meanwhile, the MVSU Devilettes are just hoping to catch their breath after opening the season against a pair of Top 10 opponents in Utah and LSU. The Panthers will need to lean into the balanced scoring they’ve shown and play clean basketball in order to pick up some dubs down South. Given the way Milwaukee has battled and shot the ball so far, as well as growth shown by youngsters Peppler, Buwalda and guard Jada Williams, it should be an exciting trio of matchups.