UW-Whitewater wins battle over UW-La Crosse
Just a fleeting mirage, before anywhere between one to three defenders—or what must’ve looked like nine or 10 to whoever had the ball—stepped over to guard the hoop and likely cause physical contact.
In a grinder of a game that saw 46 total fouls and 55 free throws attempted, top-seeded UW-Whitewater prevailed, 66-55, over fifth-seeded UW-La Crosse. The Warhawks advance to the championship game against No. 2 seed River Falls at 2 p.m. Sunday at Kachel Gym for the title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament.
Friday’s game was ugly, physical and, frankly, difficult to watch. But that’s the way the Warhawks (23-3) like it.
“This team, if nothing else, we’re not pretty to watch, but they have a great level of toughness,” Whitewater coach Pat Miller said. “And that’s really been our key this year, they’re just a very tough team.”
Down a game to two teams in the WIAC regular-season standings with just two games left, the Warhawks rallied to win the regular-season title and earn the tournament’s top seed. River Falls beat third-seeded Stevens Point, 76-51, in Friday’s other semifinal.
Ranked No. 1 in its region and No. 8 in the latest D3hoops.com national poll, Whitewater likely doesn’t need the automatic bid to reach the tournament. But the Warhawks will certainly be seeking it, and they expect a game as physical as Friday’s.
“We’re gonna have another one come Sunday,” senior forward Chris Davis said of Friday’s bruiser.
Davis, who led the WIAC with 23 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in the regular season, hopes he spends less time on the bench in Sunday’s contest than he did on Friday.
Davis picked up his third foul with 18 minutes 24 seconds left in the second half, re-entered the game with 15:24 to go and promptly got his fourth with 12:07 remaining.
“There’s always a gamble, because you don’t know what they’re gonna call,” Miller said of putting Davis back in with three fouls. “But he’s a guy who’s proven throughout his two years he just doesn’t foul-out of games, and he doesn’t commit foolish fouls. I thought his fourth foul was a tough one for him.”
Said Davis, who finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds in his limited playing time: “It was tough. I wanted to play so bad, but it’s my fault. I fouled, so I couldn’t do (anything) about it.”
After opening up an 8-0 lead to start the game and leading 26-20 at halftime, Whitewater stagnated in the second half with just eight made field goals.
“I thought defensively they had a good scheme, and we just didn’t react to it very well,” Miller said. “We got off to a good start, then we missed some shots, and then we got very stagnant offensively.”
La Crosse (17-10) took advantage, opening the second half on a 14-4 run to take a 34-30 lead on Luke Tweed’s turnaround jumper with 14:49 left.
The lead seesawed after that, but the Warhawks finally grabbed it for good with a 6-0 run that included a basket and a pair of free throws from Luke Knoble to put Whitewater up 50-44 with 6:03 to play.
Along with reserve Alex Edmunds (11 points, 6 rebounds), Knoble helped make up for Davis’ foul trouble with 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field and 5-of-5 at the free-throw line.
“When Chris gets in foul trouble, I just (have) to be that much more aggressive, get to the rim and just contribute in any way I can,” Knoble said.
The Eagles, who received 14 points apiece from Cory Degner and Al Chery, got as close as 56-54 with 1:59 left, but Whitewater—which made 24 of 30 free throws in the second half—blanketed La Crosse’s three-point shooters and held the Eagles to one point the rest of the way.
“We thought we had to take away their three-point shooting,” said Miller, whose team limited La Crosse to 3-of-14 beyond the arc. “That’s clearly their offensive strength, and I thought we did a great job of that.”