Road split capped by historic shooting day for Panthers

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The Panthers’ past three games have brought exciting variety, a tour around the conference, and a pair of wins. Now, Milwaukee is back home to play two in a row in the Cream City – and has an opportunity to move up the league standings. 

Following a high-scoring, close-fought contest in a home win against Wright State, the Panthers took their act on the road last week. First, they kept well ahead of Robert Morris in a more serene victory, then slugged it out in Youngstown, where the Penguins prevailed, 73-66. Even in defeat, though, the Panthers had something to celebrate: the most perfect shooting day that any MKE player has ever had. 

Senior forward Grace Crowley finished 10/10 from the floor in a career-best 21-point performance against YSU. Her marksmanship marked the first time in Panthers history that a player had tried so many shots without a miss, and Crowley’s incredible shot-making kept the Panthers close in a tough tilt. To hear her coach tell it, Crowley’s sizzling day was just the latest example of an experienced player stepping up when the team needed help. 

“In the first half, [Grace] had the hot hand,” Milwaukee head coach Kyle Rechlicz said following the game “She is just playing with a different level of intensity…truly playing like a senior, she is playing incredible basketball both on the offensive and defensive end.” 

Crowley’s steady scoring had Milwaukee in a good place to start, as they led 37-35 at the half against Youngstown State. Unfortunately, the third quarter was not the Panthers’ best period of the season and they conceded the lead before trading big shots – and the lead – multiple times over the course of a tight fourth quarter. “In the first half we performed well and put ourselves in a good position because of how we scored,” Rechlicz analyzed postgame. “We needed to match [Youngstown State’s] intensity and effort, but where we struggled was on the defensive end … our double teams and communication were late, and they hit key shots in critical moments.”

Still, it was another game in which the Panthers shot and shared the ball well, and MKE had opportunities to win until the final minute. The team racked up 21 assists on 25 made buckets, continuing a trend as one of the nation’s best ball-moving outfits. In addition to Crowley’s career day, veteran point guard Jada Donaldson tied her career best with eight assists, while scoring star Kendall Nead – who had only hit double figures once over the Panthers’ previous six games – went for 18. 

“I thought Kendall Nead also had a really good game,” Rechlicz pointed out following the action. “She was actively hunting her shot and trying to find opportunities for us to score and she was great on the boards for us today.” Things had ended more successfully in Milwaukee’s previous pair of contests earlier in the week, putting the team into the thick of competition for third place in the Horizon League. The Panthers put on a defensive clinic in leading comfortably nearly the entire game at Robert Morris, while the overtime dub against Wright State was a much closer – and more exhilarating – affair. 

The win over Wright State was another opportunity for Milwaukee to show off their impressive passing skills. The team racked up 26 helpers on their 32 makes, with the Horizon League’s leader – Kamy Peppler – leading the way by notching 10 assists and Nead adding six more. The Panthers also shot the ball well both inside and out in order to make their smooth ball movement count, with Donaldson taking center stage. A heady distributor whose true value is often difficult to measure statistically, Donaldson scored a career-high 20 points against the Raiders. Prior to this season, she had not been much of a deep threat to speak of, but this year, Donaldson has made defenses respect her jumper. Among her 20 points were four made triples, and Donaldson is now shooting 40.0% for the year on her 20 makes from the land of trey. Joining Donaldson with 20 points was Anna Lutz, the fourth time this season that she’s hit for so many. Lutz has been reliable as a third steady scoring option; her talent for pulling defenders out to the perimeter and then working inside for quality looks balances the MKE attack. It’s nice to have leaders who set a solid tone defensively, as well, something which Rechlicz has consistently commented on this year. 

“We came out with a lot of heart and enthusiasm on the defensive side,” Rechlicz admired her team’s effort. “It was an impressive performance on the defensive end and that energy helped lead our offense to play that much better.”

The Panthers got another pair of strong performances with 15 each from Angie Cera and Crowley. Cera did the bulk of her damage from distance, tossing in four triples, while Crowley hinted at her upcoming perfect day from the field by adding 10 rebounds for a double-double. Two of the deep balls by Cera were instrumental in keeping Milwaukee in the game late. The close to regulation saw lead changes, a long review, and some Panther misses at the free throw line before Donaldson capitalized upon a key turnover, got fouled, and hit a pair to tie things. The overtime period which it took to knock off the Raiders was the first extra session which Milwaukee has played so far this year, and they made the bonus time count with a 14-8 tally over the final five minutes, locking up a 93-87 win. Lutz, Crowley, and Donaldson led the way in overtime, with another pair of Donaldson freebies sealing both her highest-scoring day and a win for the Black & Gold. 

In taking out Robert Morris in Moon Township, PA, Milwaukee played more of the good defense which their coach has so admired. Though they were down early, the Panthers put the clamps on RMU in making a 20-4 run which stretched from midway through the first quarter well into the second. Milwaukee led 27-16 by halftime, and never looked back. 

“I was proud of our defensive effort when we went on that run,” Rechlicz pointed out when reflecting on the game. “It’s tough in our league to win on the road, so to get this one was extra special … we locked in for a very solid period of time in that second quarter.” Overall, Milwaukee’s field goal defense was the best it had been all year – the Colonials shot less than 28% for the game. The 61-43 win also marked the tenth time this season that the Panthers have held their opponent to fewer than 60 points in a game. Cera and Peppler tied for the team lead in scoring at 13 points, while Nead chipped in a dozen of her own. 

This week, the Panthers play host to a pair of Horizon League foes who have struggled to a combined 11 wins so far this year – and two teams that Milwaukee has already beaten on the road. On Thursday, MKE hosts IUPUI, while the Norse of Northern Kentucky will row ashore on Saturday. If the Panthers can win both games, they will put quite a bit of pressure on a pack of teams around them in the conference standings. Detroit Mercy, IPFW, and Wright State are, along with the Panthers, all within one game of one another competing for third place in the league. If Milwaukee can earn some separation, it will come from the confidence they’ve built through sharing the spotlight and winning six of their past eight contests. The Panthers are 6-5 at the Klotsche Center this season, where they hope to convert more good days into league victories. 

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