A lot of underclassmen have contributed to what’s been a deep and balanced UW-Eau Claire women’s basketball team this season. But in a tie game in the waning seconds, coach Tonja Englund wanted the ball and the game in the hands of her only senior on the floor.
Kayla Hanley received a pass on the right wing, drove hard to the hoop and got fouled with 5.9 seconds left. The Chippewa Falls product hit the first of two free throws, and the Blugolds got one last defensive stop to win 51-50 over UW-Stevens Point on Saturday at Zorn Arena.
“We absolutely wanted to get Kayla the ball,” Englund said. “Great to see Kayla take that next step and know as a senior the ball was going to go to her at the end. She wanted the ball.”
Hanley’s free throw capped a wild game that featured the Blugolds fighting back from a 13-point first-half deficit, nearly pitching a shutout in the third quarter and overcoming a game-tying 3-pointer by the Pointers with 22 seconds left. UW-Eau Claire (11-4, 3-1) pulled into a four-way tie atop the WIAC.
“It’s really important to win every single conference game and to win close games,” Hanley said. “It gives us that more of an edge later on in the season and into the postseason.”
Jenni LaCroix scored 10 points and Elly Boles had eight for a Blugolds squad that struggled from the field offensively, shooting just 36 percent from the floor and 3 of 13 from beyond the arc, but still found a way to win.
The first half was particularly rough for the Blugolds, who trailed 33-20 before scoring the final four points of the second quarter. Nothing came easy as the Blugolds — still playing without the injured Anna Graaskamp, the team’s leading scorer — weren’t effective running their up-tempo style. That changed after halftime.
“We switched the defense up and went with a zone,” Englund said. “We felt maybe we could rebound better out of the zone and push the pace more. I feel like the third quarter got faster, and that’s what we were trying to do defensively.”
The game did speed up, but the Blugolds were also rock solid in their half-court defense, contesting every shot and forcing turnovers. The Pointers (7-8, 1-3) didn’t score in the third quarter until Carly Cerrato hit a 3-pointer with 1:12 left. That ended an 18-0 run that had put the Blugolds on top by five.
The teams then traded blows in a tight fourth quarter. LaCroix beat the shot clock buzzer with crucial 3 with four minutes to play. Freshman Katie Essen scored inside with a minute to go to put the Blugolds on top 50-47 with a minute to play. The Pointers’ Lexi Roland then hit a clutch 3 with 22 seconds left to tie the game, setting up one last chance for UW-Eau Claire and Hanley.
The Blugolds ran the play for Hanley perfectly, and she delivered after stepping to the line with confidence.
“I just knew that we executed so well and we worked so hard to get back in the game that I needed to be a senior and step up and do that for the team,” Hanley said. “That’s my job.”
The Pointers got a decent look at the buzzer, but Cerrato’s long 3 came up just short.