It wasn’t a slip-up that cost UW-Eau Claire a chance at a first-round bye in the WIAC playoffs this season. For some that might be a positive. For others though, it means the Blugolds know exactly where they stand in WIAC play.
The Blugolds entered Saturday night with three conference losses, two to UW-Whitewater and one to UW-La Crosse, with a chance to clinch the No. 2 seed in the WIAC tournament and a first round bye. But the Eagles had other ideas, running wild on the Blugolds to spoil senior night 80-61 in Zorn Arena, bumping Eau Claire to the No. 3 seed in the WIAC playoffs, behind the only WIAC teams the Blugolds haven’t beaten this season.
“Credit to the group, we haven’t lost to anyone that finished below us,” Blugolds coach Tonja Englund said. “It’s La Crosse and Whitewater that have been better than us this year.”
The Eagles showed why they’ve been the best offense in the WIAC this season, jumping up 10-0 in the first four minutes and taking a 38-25 lead into halftime thanks in part to 28.6% shooting from the Blugolds in the first half.
Freshman Jessie Ruden was the only one to find a rhythm for Eau Claire in the first half, connecting on three 3s for nine of her team-high 14 points before halftime, despite having to miss almost six minutes to stop the blood that was dripping from beside her right eye.
“Credit to Jessie Ruden she led us in scoring as a freshman in a very high intensity game,” Englund said. “It’s pretty exciting to see what a great player Jessie is going to be for us.”
After the break Eau Claire found its rhythm offensively, pulling to within five shortly after senior Anna Graaskamp converted her second of two and-1s. But La Crosse responded with a 10-0 run and the Blugolds couldn’t muster another comeback.
“We had runs where we got things going but defensively we couldn’t get stops when we needed to and that’s what hurt us,” senior Hallee Hoeppner said. “We were trading baskets a lot of the time and not really taking advantage of the fact we were scoring on one end.”
The Eagles’ 80 points was the most points the Blugolds have given up in a regulation conference game this season, tying the total UW-Stout scored on Eau Claire in the team’s double-overtime game in January.
“We haven’t had a team put up a ton of points on us in a long time,” Englund said. “I’m disappointed in our defensive effort especially.”
Making matters worse, Graaskamp was forced to exit the game with 8:49 to go in the fourth quarter. She went down on the court, crunching over, before medical personnel helped her off walk off the court. She later returned to the bench with an ice pack on her back, but Englund said she had no information regarding the injury.
“It’s always hard seeing Graas go down, she’s battled her fair share of injuries over the past four years so she’s never someone you want to see go down,” Hoeppner said.
With the loss, Eau Claire fell out of the No. 2 seed and will now have to play on short rest when sixth-seeded UW-Stevens Point comes to town on Tuesday for a 6 p.m. game in first round of the WIAC playoffs.
“We wanted that badly,” Englund said of losing the bye. “We wanted to have that opportunity to not be in the 3-6 game and to get to Thursday and just have to win two, but tonight La Crosse was the better team and I told my team that, they earned the two seed tonight.”
After Stevens Point, if the Blugolds are going to clinch the conference title, they’re going to need to do something they haven’t done all year and knock off La Crosse and likely top-seeded Whitewater.
“It’s always hard to beat a team three times and we kind of just have to go off of that,” Hoeppner said. “We’ve kind of dropped the ball when we’ve played them in all four of those games, so (we need to) come in with a chip on our shoulder and capitalize on opportunities that we didn’t in the past few games.”
UW-La Crosse 80, UW-Eau Claire 61
La Crosse (19-6, 10-4): Emma Gamoke 3, Dani Craig 16, Kyah Steiner 13, Lexie Higgins 8, Delaney Schoenenberger 12, Ava Kramer 15, Kat Fitzgerald 9, Alana Gilles 4.
Eau Claire (16-9, 10-4): Kelsey Bakken 5, Jessie Ruden 14, Hallee Hoeppner 6, Anna Graaskamp 10, Katie Essen 13, Maizie Deihl 5, Ellie Clayton 8.
3-point goals: La Crosse 9 (Gamoke, Craig 4, Schoenenberger 2, Kramer, Fitzgeraldn); Eau Claire 9 (Bakken, Ruden 4, Hoeppner 2, Deihl, Clayton)
Halftime: La Crosse 38-25