Week of dominant wins prepares Panthers for rivalry clash, Horizon League play

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Are post-Thanksgiving fireworks a thing? Milwaukee’s women’s basketball team thinks they ought to be, so the Panthers lit up the Klotsche Center on Saturday. 

While Milwaukee was running its winning streak to four games this weekend, head coach Kyle Rechlicz’s team also put on one of the greatest shooting displays in Horizon League history. And with an in-state, in-conference grudge match set for this evening, fans in Cream City are hoping that it was but a preview of celebrations to come. 

The Panthers equaled their team record with 17 made triples, as Anna Lutz’s career day led an absolute barrage which helped Milwaukee to run visiting Central Michigan out of the gym and most of the way back to Mount Pleasant. Playing her second game back after missing the team’s MTE trip to Louisiana, Lutz went off. The sophomore forward hit five of her six attempts from the land of trey, and bested her previous high of 16 by tossing in 23 of the Panthers’ points. By the end, Milwaukee had pulled away for an impressive 84-59 margin over CMU – and along the way, Lutz had plenty of help from her friends. 

Playmakers Jada Donaldson and Kamy Peppler each handed out six assists (for the second game in a row, no less), and the Panthers tallied 23 helpers as a team – the second time already this year that they’ve done so. “When we move the ball from one side to the other, we are a tough team to stop on offense,” Rechlicz said postgame. “Especially when you have post players that can stretch the floor.”

With Lutz leading the way, Milwaukee showed off their scoring depth. Angie Cera joined Peppler and Kendall Nead in going for double figures, as they racked up 19, 15 and 11 points, respectively. Additionally, all four players who scored 10+ hit at least a trio of triples before all was said and done. With their 17 makes from deep, the Panthers fell just one short of the Horizon League’s all-time record of 18 three-pointers in a game. Their 53.1% rate as a team was also the second time in the Panthers’ last three home games that the team shot better than 50% from downtown; MKE hit 52.4% on 3FG tries a couple of weeks ago against Illinois-Chicago.

The Panthers’ improvements from the outside have been a breath of fresh air, as the team struggled mightily to hit from the outside most of last year. A season ago, MKE ranked 231st/188th/293rd nationally in 3FG makes, attempts, and percentage. This year, with Peppler leading the way, Nead and Cera steadily contributing, and genuine improvement from Donaldson and Lutz, the Panthers have a whole new facet offensively. Currently, the Black and Gold are slashing 39th/37th/87th nationally on those same statistics, a night-and-day difference for opponents to be concerned about.

As entertaining as Milwaukee’s sharp shooting was on Saturday, the Panthers’ coach was just as pleased by her team’s defensive performance. “Our goal has been to keep teams under 60 points all season, we really need to lock up those last few late possessions,” Rechlicz declared after the game. “I was proud of our team at the very end to keep them from getting to 60.” It was the second straight dominant showing from the Panthers – and their second straight game allowing less than 60 points. 

Earlier in the week, Milwaukee returned from three games in three days at the McNeese MTE to host Division III Edgewood College. Against their opponents from Madison, the Panthers were barely kinder as hosts than they were to CMU. Though they didn’t shoot the ball especially well in their 70-50 victory over their in-state foes, Rechlicz saw lots to like from her team defensively. The Panthers held Edgewood to 26.3% on 3FG’s, forced 24 turnovers and finished +16 on the glass. “We dominated the boards and only had 15 turnovers,” Rechlicz admired her team’s effort. “But we didn’t shoot well, but that comes down to tired legs with four games in six days.” Nead led the Panthers with 20 points against Edgewood, while Jorey Buwalda and Peppler each chipped in 12 and Cera hit for 11. Donaldson, as ever, did a bit of everything, finishing with 8 points, 6 boards, 6 assists, and a pair of steals, while Peppler also had a half-dozen helpers to go with four steals. 

The way Milwaukee has played together and shared the ball this season has clearly been a team strength. Now, with the Panthers having more healthy weapons available, they should prove more and more dangerous. While the team has remained without veteran forward Grace Crowley since early in their second game of the year, Lutz’s return to the lineup certainly helps. She gained experience last season as Rechlicz’s first post off the bench and is emerging as a reliable and versatile two-way option up front. With Lutz’s counterpart Buwalda continuing her highly productive debut – speaking of, she was named the Horizon League’s Freshman of the Week – things are looking considerably better for an MKE team that was getting worked on the glass too often to start the year.  

The Panthers are going to need another big performance from the whole rotation, as some familiar faces are coming to Cream City to tip off Horizon League play. The Green Bay Phoenix will be at the Klotsche Center tonight, with the game scheduled for a 7 pm tip. Longtime head coach Kevin Borseth has another strong squad looking to contend for the Horizon League title, and the Phoenix have already notched a couple of marquee wins on the young season. They’ve won at #22 Creighton and, in their own big performance on Saturday, are fresh off of beating #23 Washington State in Cancún, Mexico. 

The Phoenix, as ever, are balanced up and down the lineup, and Borseth will make high-energy substitutions like a hockey coach cycling their lines. Milwaukee will need to counter with more of the balanced scoring contributions they’ve been getting across their own lineup. Green Bay isn’t going to overwhelm anyone with sheer size, but they clean the defensive glass, limit quality shot opportunities for their opponents, and take tremendous care of their own possessions. Both teams are highly unselfish; they each average more than 17 helpers per contest, though Milwaukee sits at 36th nationally with 17.6 assists on average, compared to Green Bay’s 17.3 and ranking of 42nd.

The Panthers will need to continue making outside shots and avoid unnecessary turnovers. If they can do so – and own the boards, the Panthers can send a shot across the bow of their conference that they’re ready to contend this year. The Phoenix appear to be building a good enough resumé to possibly qualify as an at-large NCAA Tournament team, and Milwaukee would love to get onto that sort of level. With their confidence riding high, some strong defensive performances, and the threat of their new-found outside shooting, the Panthers are ready for a challenge. They’ve had a great couple of weeks, and Milwaukee will look to carry their streak forward with a signature win against the Phoenix. 

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