On their trip to Louisiana this week, the Milwaukee women’s basketball team made all sorts of memories. Some good, some vexing, and one which was simply legendary.
Playing in the inaugural McNeese MTE in Lake Charles, LA, the Panthers began their three-game slate with familiar frustration in a loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Instead of knocking Milwaukee down, the defeat served as motivation for the Panthers to receive some extraordinary individual performances which have helped to set things back on course.
After losing to ULM on Thursday by a hard-fought 73-67 margin, senior guard Kendall Nead dominated in leading the Panthers to a victory over McNeese State on Friday with a career-best 38 points. The best part? Nead’s incredible day wasn’t the only best-ever performance or victory Milwaukee enjoyed down south. The next day, freshman post Jorey Buwalda took the lead by putting up her own career day: a 20-point, 12-rebound double-double in just her third career start. It was enough to push the Panthers towards a second straight win, as Milwaukee knocked off Mississippi Valley State.
“It’s tough when you play three games in three days,” Milwaukee head coach Kyle Rechlicz said following the Panthers’ win. “Today we had to play all of our starters over 30-minutes each. I couldn’t be prouder as their coach about how we competed down the stretch.”
Speaking before the season, Rechlicz left no doubt about Nead’s importance to the Panthers this season. “We’re expecting a lot from her this year, and expecting her to carry a lot of the weight. And to be honest, I think she’s ready for it.” On Friday, Nead showed why she has been the focal point of their Panthers. Nead’s career day was one of the best scoring performances in Milwaukee history. It wasn’t three-point bombs or a bunch of trips to the charity stripe which allowed Nead to go off: she was on fire from all over the court. Taking defenders off the bounce wherever possible, most of Nead’s attempts came from close to or inside the painted area, and she helped the Panthers to score their most points in one game as a team since February of 2018. Nead became the third Panthers player ever to score as many as 38 points, and with her 17 made baskets in one game, Nead tied Milwaukee’s all-time program record. Her day was so impressive that the whole country took note on social media.
“We kept telling our team that we needed to be better at finishing in the paint and we accomplished that tonight,” Rechlicz after Milwaukee’s first – and resounding – win of the year. “To bounce back after our last game [against Louisiana Monroe] in less than 24 hours, says a lot about who we are as a team, and we played really well tonight.”
Buwalda, pressed into the lineup with veteran forward Grace Crowley injured, took clear steps forward over the course of Milwaukee’s three games. After starting with five points and nine rebounds against ULM, Buwalda scored seven to go with 14 boards against the host Cowgirls before stepping out with her double-double against MVSU. Not only did Buwalda notch 12 offensive boards and 25 overall for the tourney: she knocked down 12 of 13 free throw attempts over the multi-team event.
“What a player, we just kept feeding her,” Rechlicz praised Buwalda after the win. “She did her job and went to work and took some big strides this weekend.” Buwalda’s good work on the boards has proven absolutely vital to the Panthers, who had struggled to contain opponents on the glass even before Crowley was lost from the rotation.
Without graduated posts Megan Walstad and Emma Whitmershouse this year, the Panthers had struggled to clean the glass starting off the season. They gave up 21 offensive rebounds in back-to-back contests against Illinois-Chicago last Sunday and Louisiana-Monroe to begin the McNeese MTE, losing the games by three and six points, respectively. “We can’t give up 21 offensive boards leading (to) 26 second-chance points, that was the game. We have to finish our plays, both on offense and defense,” said Rechlicz after the ULM defeat. “We need to fix those things because we have the potential to be a special team, and if we can fix those things the wins will come.”
While neither of the wins they earned so far were easy – the lead changed hands 20 times against Mississippi Valley State, and it took a 19-of-21 performance at the free throw line to finally put things on ice – Milwaukee’s efforts in the paint led the way to each victory. Against McNeese State and MVSU, Milwaukee owned the boards. The Panthers allowed just 13 offensive rebounds combined to the Cowgirls and Devilettes, while finishing +20 overall on the glass against those opponents. Even against the Warhawks, Milwaukee managed to snag 20 offensive rebounds of their own. In the Panther’s victories, Milwaukee began to show a lot of the team strengths which they will rely upon for the rest of the season. The Panthers’ perimeter defense was active all tournament, and though ULM cashed in on 26 second-chance points, the Warhawks shot just 35.4% for the game. It’s clear the Panthers have made opponents earn their quality shot attempts; even as ULM star Daisha Bradford went for 33 points against MKE, it took her 30 shot attempts to hit that total. The Panthers held their three opponents to a combined 41.3% mark from the floor over the three games, and outside of MVSU scorer Jaylia Reed’s 6/9 shooting from deep, the Panthers held their last two opponents to 35.0% from deep.
In putting together the makings of a winning streak, Milwaukee also continued to get good shooting and creative playmaking from guards Kamy Peppler and Jada Donaldson. Meanwhile, Angie Cera’s own productive season continued in helping to lead the way. Offensively, Peppler and Donaldson are enabling the Panthers to share the ball and get good looks at a terrific rate. The duo averaged 11 assists per game combined in Lake Charles, and Milwaukee ranks 57th nationally so far with a team average of 17 helpers per contest on the young season.
While Nead and Buwalda were posting eye-catching numbers, Peppler was not much outdone. She supported Nead’s career day with 22 points of her own, and Peppler knocked down six of 12 triple tries – while notching just as many setups – along the way against McNeese State. Though her propensity to turn the ball over remains a stumbling block, Peppler is proving to be a creative lead guard the Panthers can rely upon. Her averages of 6.2 assists and 1.6 steals lead the team, and Peppler’s assist average leads all Horizon League players through two weeks. In fact, the Panthers own first and third position, currently, as Donaldson’s 4.4 helpers per contest aren’t far off of the league’s top rank. Additionally, Peppler’s 15.0 points per game and 39.0% rate from the land of trey have been of tremendous benefit in balancing out the Panthers’ attack.
Cera has added her consistent two-way play to that of Donaldson, and the senior wing has taken on some tough defensive assignments already. With her 10.0 points, 3.8 boards and 3.0 assists per game – and sterling 15/15 performance so far at the foul line – Cera has joined Donaldson in providing great efficiency and a defensive standard for teammates to emulate. Though she doesn’t shoot as often, Donaldson has been wonderfully efficient. In addition to her 22:10 assist to turnover ratio, Donaldson is making 47.8% from the floor, has yet to miss a free throw, and has even tossed in four of her eight triple tries through five tilts.
In coming back from another tough loss – and the absence of a key veteran presence – to emerge from the Bayou with a pair of victories, the Panthers displayed resilience which impressed their coaches, as well as a blueprint for success going forward. If the Panthers can keep their opponents from piling up second-chance points and refrain from giving away too many turnovers, Milwaukee has scoring depth and a talent for sharing the ball which should provide a strong foundation as they ramp up towards conference play. The opponents who have beaten the Panthers are a combined 11-3 to start the year, and the fact that Milwaukee has played 70+% of their minutes without Crowley has done nothing to help. Now, though, the Panthers are aiming for three victories in a row – and a return to .500 – as they look towards hosting Madison Edgewood College on Tuesday. Four of the Panthers’ next five games will be played on friendly ground at the Klotsche Center, and things are looking up for this group that has begun to show some of what they’re capable of.