The 2013-14 season was barely over and the next season still months away, but already in April it was a sure thing that few teams in 2014-15 were going to be dealt a tougher hand than the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
This year’s campaign should’ve been one of heavy optimism for the Milwaukee Panthers, with most of the key players returning from a team that made a surprising trip to the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the light the Panthers may have been rightfully basking in was darkened just a month later when it was announced the 2014-15 team would miss the postseason due to NCAA Academic Performance Rate (APR) penalties.
How Milwaukee has handled that tough hand, though, is an admirable story from this college basketball season. It got off to a tough start and was even just 5-12 a couple weeks ago, but the team has continued to play hard and has become a thorn in the side of Horizon League foes. No better was that shown than Tuesday night, when the Panthers pulled away from Horizon contender Oakland University for an 84-67 win at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.
Milwaukee played one of its most complete games of the season as well as quite possibly its best half of the year. In fact, offensively it was likely one of the best halves you’ll see played by any Division I team this season.
The Panthers (10-15 overall, 5-6 Horizon League) shot 67.7% in the second half, making 21 of 31 shots. That included 7 of 11 from three-point range as well as just four turnovers. The product of that devastating efficiency was a 53-point explosion, and a game Oakland actually led 36-33 early in the second half and appeared to be taking control of turned into a decisive decision, with the hosts running and dunking their way to the finish for their fifth win in seven games.
For the game, Milwaukee shot 51.6% (32 of 62) and hit a season-high 13 three-pointers. The three-pointers came from all throughout the lineup, with seven different players dialing long distance. Freshman guard Justin Jordan-that’s Michael’s nephew-hit three triples early, big man Matt Tiby stepped out and drilled three more, and Cody Wichmann and J.R. Lyle added two more each.
Lyle has been a spark off the bench for the Panthers over their last two games and had 15 points and three steals in this one. A starter the first half of the season, he missed three games in January with a foot injury and has slowly been working his way back into playing shape.
”The first thing I’d like to say is ‘welcome back J.R. Lyle,” said Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter to open his press conference after the game, with Lyle at the table to his right. “It’s good to have him back playing with that energy and passion that we need.”
“Energy” was evident in the team’s performance right through the end of the game. Trailing 72-58 with just under four minutes to play, Oakland (12-14 overall, 7-4 Horizon) made a last-ditch attempt at a rally by putting on a full court press, but Milwaukee shredded it easily, and the result was back-to-back alley-oop dunks to Lyle and Akeem Springs, respectively.
“I was really pleased with how our guys shared the basketball, made the extra pass, and gave up good looks to get great looks,” said Jeter. “And just to have some fun at the end, you see guys flying up the court, dunking the ball, getting people excited, that’s what we’re trying to get (Milwaukee basketball) to.”
Just as notable as the Panthers’ offensive prowess was their defensive work against a good Oakland team with a number of capable weapons. In particular, Milwaukee did an outstanding job in the paint against 6-10 Corey Petros, the reigning Horizon League Player of the Week.
Petros came in averaging 14.6 points per game for the season and 23.7 over the Golden Grizzlies’ last three games, but he was held to just seven points. Milwaukee’s Tiby, J.J. Panoske, Wichmann and even lightly used reserve Dan Studer were able to noticeably frustrate Petros with physical defense in the paint. Jeter said the team’s strategy was to double-team inside, and by the middle of the second half, Oakland had all but given up on trying to punch it inside, and Petros finished with just four shot attempts in the second half.
Oakland’s electric guard Kahlil Felder also was quiet in the second half with just three of his 14 points. Felder did add nine assists and six rebounds, but Panther senior guard Steve McWhorter-the team’s leader all year-was equal to Felder and then some, finishing with 17 points, nine assists, five boards and four steals.
Milwaukee has had its share of lows this season. Returning starter Austin Arians was injured before the season even started and is redshirting, and there have been nagging injuries to players like Lyle. There was a close loss at Auburn in the season opener in a game it led much of the way. The Panthers have struggled on the road, going winless in 11 tries.
Despite a heaping share of adversity, though, Milwaukee has become a tough out at home. The Panthers are 8-3 at home and have won five straight against Horizon foes at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.
That home court has been considerably homier this year than a year ago. Last year, Milwaukee was one of the best road teams in the country (10-5) but a mediocre 7-6 at home. Also, the former home of the Milwaukee Bucks has a new name. Once known as the MECCA and, later, U.S. Cellular Arena, UWM purchased the arena’s naming rights in June and has been gradually putting its own touch on the building.
“It’s good to be good at home,” said Jeter. “Last year we were great on the road, the second-best road team in the country. At home we had a few snags. This year it’s the opposite.
“You always like to have fun at home and play well. It doesn’t hurt, too, when your naming rights are on the building, you come here and see the black and gold…the place is really looking nice.”
Jeter is proud of his team’s effort on and off the court through what no doubt has been a trying season. Milwaukee has put in a number of measures to ensure the APR woes are in the past, and the basketball team had a GPA of 3.078 in the fall. Jeter and members of the basketball team even participated in a brief parade at halftime on Tuesday of Panther student-athletes from all sports earning 3.0 GPAs in the fall, a nice touch with how teams treasure every second of their halftime breaks.
“This group has really shown how tough they can be and how tough we still are, knowing that there’s a few games left for us,” said Jeter, “and these guys refuse to do anything other than just give their best.
“That’s what I’m most proud of this group. We’ve been asked to do something very difficult, and you know what? We go to practice every day, we have fun. We had 11 guys march out there today with 3.0s (GPA) or better, a few of those guys are over a 3.5. Things are looking really good for the future, and they looked good tonight.”