Uncharacteristic mistakes slowed down UW-Eau Claire early.
But in due time, the Blugolds got back into their groove. All it took was a veteran team to start playing like the experienced squad it is.
Eau Claire outscored UW-River Falls 22-6 in the third quarter to overturn a 27-26 halftime deficit, and held off a late Falcons rally for a 64-55 win in the team’s WIAC opener at Zorn Arena on Wednesday.
Turnovers hurt the Blugolds early — they coughed the ball up 12 times in the first half, preventing them from getting in a rhythm offensively. But they got back in the flow of things in the third quarter, scoring nearly as many points in that period as they did in the entire first half.
“We just needed to clean it up. We weren’t us,” said Eau Claire’s Katie Essen, who tallied a double-double by scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. “We came out and did what we do best, and obviously it made a difference.”
The Blugolds, normally consistent from the free throw line, struggled at the charity stripe early on, compounding their offense’s struggles. They made just four of 10 foul shots in the first half, letting a foul-happy Falcons squad off the hook.
“They’re used to getting going right away, and I think because our offense stalled, they got away from what they’re good at,” Blugolds coach Tonja Englund said of her team. “It’s a good learning experience for them.”
Eau Claire’s press defense also gave the Falcons their fair share of turnovers — River Falls turned it over 10 times in the first half — helping keep the halftime deficit manageable despite their struggles scoring the ball.
The Blugolds came out of halftime looking like a different team, and that manifested on the scoreboard in short order. With turnovers at a minimum, they scored the first eight points of the second half and closed the third quarter on a 14-2 run to pull ahead to a 15-point lead entering the final period.
The Blugolds led by as much as 19 with just under seven minutes left, but a 12-0 run by River Falls later in the quarter trimmed the lead to 59-53 with 1:21 remaining.
Hallee Hoeppner put an end to the Blugolds’ drought with a critical 3-pointer from the top of the key with the shot clock winding down and under one minute to play. It proved to be the knockout blow, as River Falls ran out of steam the rest of the way.
“Hallee’s shot at the end was tremendous,” Englund said. “That’s what a good team does: find ways to win.”
Kelsey Bakken had a game-high 20 points for the Blugolds while also grabbing eight boards. Maddie Dunathan added 13 points, and Hoeppner finished with 12.
“I think everyone stepped up at the end, dug deep and did what they needed to do,” Essen said.
The Blugolds ended up with 21 turnovers in the win, a number they’ll look to trim when they host UW-Whitewater (8-4, 1-0) on Saturday.
“This was not typical of this group at all tonight. I was disappointed with how loose we were with the ball and our decision making,” Englund said. “For the experience I have in this group, I expect them to work through some of those things.
UW-Eau Claire 64, UW-River Falls 55
River Falls (6-6, 0-1): Jenna Zeman 6, Tessa Hubbard 3, Taylor Paulsrud 15, Crystal Pearson 10, Madelyn O’Brien 2, Lori Wardynski 15, Brianna Koop 4.
Eau Claire (10-2, 1-0): Maddie Dunathan 13, Kelsey Bakken 20, Hallee Hoeppner 12, Brooke Harris 2, Katie Essen 15, Josie Huelskamp 2.
3-pointers: River Falls 5 (Pearson 2, Hubbard, Paulsrud, Wardynski); Eau Claire 7 (Bakken 3, Dunathan 2, Hoeppner 2).
Halftime score: River Falls 27-26.