Panthers clawing back into Horizon League contention

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When Detroit Mercy’s Myonna Hooper drained a foul line jumper with just over a second left against the Panthers on Saturday, it was a big disappointment for head coach Kyle Rechlicz’s crew. It also confirmed just how hard it’s been to beat Milwaukee lately. 

The clutch shot which gave the Titans a 54-52 win this past weekend ended what had been a four-game winning streak for the Panthers. Fortunately for Milwaukee, despite the defeat, their hot stretch has been enough to propel them back into the thick of things in league play. 

In a season which has seen the Panthers focused on stacking good days, the team has now equaled their win total from a year ago before the calendar has even turned to February. By getting back to .500 both overall and within their conference, Milwaukee also finished up their second four-game win streak of the season. MKE has tightened things up defensively while continuing their season-long trends of shooting and sharing the ball effectively. Though the result wasn’t in their favor, Saturday’s contest also marked the fourth straight game in which the Panthers allowed fewer than 60 points. Following their 75-67 win at Northern Kentucky on January 7, Milwaukee had posted margins of 73-58 against Robert Morris and 66-58 while hosting Youngstown State before a 67-51 triumph preceded Saturday’s loss. Best of all? In reeling off the W’s, the Panthers are getting key contributions up and down the lineup. 

“I like that different people are stepping up,” Rechlicz said during Milwaukee’s recent four-win streak. “To be able to have different players be aggressive is the most promising thing … if you try to take away one or two people, then we’ll be able to get something else offensively.”

In three of the Panthers’ four wins, different players took turns leading the Panthers in scoring the ball. While Kendall Nead has been the team’s go-to option all year, Kamy Peppler posted a pair of 24-point performances, while Anna Lutz had 24 of her own at Oakland, and rookie Jorey Buwalda’s 17 led Milwaukee against Robert Morris. In her two 24-point games, Peppler shot a combined 9/16 from the land of trey. Peppler, the team’s primary deep threat, is enjoying a breakout second season, and not just because of her shot-making. After having handed out seven assists combined in those high-scoring tilts, Peppler truly showed off her habit for helping out. Against the Golden Grizzlies, Peppler doled out a career-best 14 assists to her teammates in a 16-point Panther win. Many of the precision feeds from Peppler found Lutz, whose 24 points in the victory were also a career-high. 

“I was so proud of our effort and the intensity that we played with throughout the game,” Rechlicz told Milwaukee Athletic Communications postgame. “Kamy [Peppler] did a great job of finding Anna [Lutz] … the shots kept falling for Anna, so we had to keep getting the ball to her.” Lutz shot 11/12 from the floor – very nearly a program record for single-game efficiency. Meanwhile, Peppler’s 14 dimes tied Milwaukee’s all-time record. Midway through the conference season, Peppler leads all Horizon League players in assists. 

The team’s varied contributions in getting buckets is mirrored by the mix of veterans and, increasingly, young players earning key minutes in Cream City. Buwalda’s role continues to grow, as her play has been worthy of Horizon League Freshman of the Week honors each of the past two weeks and three times in total this season. Across her last six games, Buwalda is averaging 13.3 points and 6.7 rebounds on 62.5% shooting. She’s hit double figures on the glass four times overall, and Buwalda’s 39 offensive boards lead the Panthers. In the last-second loss to the Titans, Buwalda converted a pair of clutch buckets down low – including an and-one – to give the Panthers a late lead, and her toughness inside is a major asset to this group. Another freshman, guard Jada Williams, has also solidified her spot in the rotation lately. Though not as big a scoring threat as Buwalda at this point, Williams is a noticeable presence on the defensive end. Tenacious on the boards and by helping to key the Panthers’ pressure on the perimeter, Williams has played bigger than her listed 5’9″ height. Since the calendar turned to 2024, the redshirt freshman has been averaging more than 15 minutes per contest. 

With Nead and Peppler doing much of the primary scoring, Lutz has had a breakout of her own over the past few weeks. Starting with her double-double of 14 & 10 on December 20, Lutz has been putting up 11.8 points and 8.1 boards on 63.4% true shooting over the Panthers’ last nine contests. Her fellow veteran, Angie Cera, has been a stalwart on the wing while contributing timely outside shooting – she went 3/3 from distance against the Titans. Their defense has been vital overall as Milwaukee’s play has improved lately. The current four-game stretch of not allowing their opponents to score 60 points has added to MKE’s tally of nine such performances on the season. Detroit Mercy was the only opponent over their last five contests to shoot as well as 40% from the floor. Still, the Panthers have given up just a combined 36.4% rate since the Northern Kentucky game – something which Rechlicz has referenced as a strength which can grow stronger. 

“I thought that when we got that lead, we got a little too loose, and that’s something that I am hoping we can tighten up moving forward. When we have someone down, we have to put it on them and dominate to put the game away,” Rechlicz surmised after Milwaukee’s win over Youngstown State, when a Peppler three ultimately put the game out of reach in favor of MKE. 

After a few days off to regroup after their tough loss in the Motor City, the Panthers host Wright State on Friday. The Raiders shot a blistering 12 of 25 (48.0%) from deep when the two teams met in Dayton six games ago, and Milwaukee would love a bit of revenge after their 77-70 defeat in that one. WSU sits at third place in Horizon League play, and the Panthers would equal their win total with a victory at the Klotsche Center. With more of the improved defense they’ve been showing off and a few more timely buckets, Milwaukee is ready to start stacking more good days and – hopefully – embark upon a new win streak. 

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