From the other sideline: Milwaukee exceeds all expectations
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Few would have given UW-Milwaukee much of a chance at a Horizon League title coming into this season after a 3-13 conference record last year.
But after an incredible overtime win over No. 1 seed Green Bay Saturday, the Panthers find themselves a win away from a Horizon League title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The only thing standing in the Panthers’ way is Wright State, who, like Milwaukee, carries a 20-13 regular season record into the game.
Flying under the radar into the Horizon League title game was not something the team thought about said Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter.
“We just looked at it as we know we can play better and we just tried to make sure we could get back to having some fun,” Jeter said. “There was a stretch where we weren’t having fun. Now, I think the pressure is off of us and the guys know that it is one or done. They know it could be our last game.”
The Panthers were picked to finish a distant last place team by league coaches and media representatives in the preseason.
Jeter was concerned about how his team would start the season with a number of transfers joining the squad.
“I thought the beginning of the season was going to be tougher for us because we had to learn how to play together,” Jeter said. “We started off very well but of a lull and throw in the fact we didn’t have our entire team. We appeared to be worse than what we were.”
Milwaukee earned its way to the Horizon League title game in a challenging way. Unlike Wright State who had a first-round bye, Milwaukee had to win an extra game last Tuesday before travelling to Green Bay.
Once the Panthers got to Green Bay, they were all business. UWM easily beat No. 4 seed Valpo 74-57 setting up the battle of Wisconsin on Saturday.
Led by a 28-point effort by Jordan Aaron, the Panthers shocked their host Green Bay 73-66.
Wright State coach Billy Donlon said the Panthers have found a whole new level so far in the Horizon League Championships.
“Their whole team has played at a whole another level,” Donlon said. “Think about Valpo, they held Valpo who has two large guys to zero offensive rebounds. That is a remarkable statistic. In three games, and this is hard to do in three games, they have made more free throws than their opponents have attempted. That is why they are in the finals.”
With Milwaukee knocking out the top seed and Wright State beating No. 2 seed Cleveland State the same day, it left the third-seeded Raiders as the highest remaining seed and thus host of the title game. It is the first time the Horizon League has relocated its Championships between semifinal and final rounds.
“You’re going to have to play it somewhere,” Jeter said. “We were hoping to be here. That means we would have knocked off Green Bay to do it. Either here or Cleveland. We knew we were going to have to travel somewhere if we accomplished that goal.”
There are seven players on the Panthers’ roster that have transferred from junior colleges or other four-year institutions with another three redshirting due to NCAA regulations.
Despite not playing any freshmen, Jeter does not consider his squad to be a veteran squad, as many came from other institutions before joining the Panthers.
“We have a lot of new faces so we’re not a veteran team like Wright State,” Jeter said. “Wright State has guys who have been around for a little bit.”
Unlike Jeter, Donlon believes Milwaukee’s team is mature.
“I do think both teams are,” Donlon said.
It has been since 2005 that Milwaukee has won in the Nutter Center. Even when the team had success, it did not carry over into contests played at Wright State.
“Just another place we haven’t won,” Jeter said. “It is one of the nicest places to play.”