Clinging to a one-point lead with less than three minutes to play, in a game with huge conference title race implications, the young Blugolds made a big statement against the 13th-ranked team in the country.
Thanks to a couple huge plays from Kelsey Bakken, textbook ball-protecting and terrific free-throw shooting, UW-Eau Claire had no trouble closing out its signature win of the year so far, a 67-62 victory over UW-Oshkosh in WIAC action Saturday night at Zorn Arena.
“They showed maturity down the stretch,” UW-Eau Claire coach Tonja Englund said. “There were key moments where we rose to the occasion.
“We needed to do this against a ranked team, against a team that has seniors who have been to the NCAA tournament. This is how this group has to play. It’s good to see them peaking and maturing at the right time.”
Anna Graaskmap scored 18 points to lead four players in double figures for UW-Eau Claire (15-6, 7-3), which is now in a three-way tie for second with UW-Oshkosh and UW-La Crosse in the conference standings, one game behind UW-Whitewater.
Jenni LaCroix scored 15 points, Bakken had 11 and Maddie Dunathan 10 for the Blugolds, who shot 48 percent from the field on a night in which the offense was clicking.
Graaskamp got it going with eight points in the first quarter, but even though she spent the entire second quarter on the bench with two fouls, the rest of the team kept pace, and the two teams went into the locker room tied at 25.
“We’re very well balanced right now,” Englund said. “Obviously we have a great go-to player, but I think we’ve grown the group that’s around her so that it’s really hard to double her.”
A fresh Graaskamp scored 10 points in the third quarter, and Dunathan’s third 3 of the game propelled the Blugolds to a 46-35 lead late in the quarter.
The Titans didn’t go quietly. They stormed back quickly and took a lead with less than seven minutes to play, prompting Englund to take a timeout and make a change from the 2-3 zone that the Blugolds had run so well in recent games.
“We got in that timeout, and coach switched up the defense,” Graaskamp said. “We went to man on them and locked down more on their shooters and kept them out of the lane.”
The move paid off, and the defense held firm while the offense went on a run. LaCroix responded with a 3 to put the Blugolds back on top, and a Bakken layup off a back-door cut and a Katie Essen free throw put the Blugolds on top by five.
The Titans then cut the lead to one before the Blugolds took control for good. Bakken knocked down a 3 from the corner with two minutes left, and after the Blugolds got a stop on the other end, Bakken pulled down an offensive rebound on the ensuing possession, forcing the Titans to start fouling.
The Blugolds took care of the ball from there and proceeded to knock down their next eight free throws — four by LaCroix — to ice the game.
“We just took care of the ball,” LaCroix said. “We struggled with that in the last couple of games. That was an emphasis in practice all week. We played smart and mature. We’re a younger team, but the sophomores, freshmen, everyone stepped up and played a mature game today.”