Blugolds clinch WIAC title
The stage was set just how the UW-Eau Claire women’s basketball team wanted it Wednesday night in Zorn Arena.
It was senior night for the fourth-ranked Blugolds, and their opponent was the 16th-ranked UW-Oshkosh Titans. If the Blugolds could beat their rivals in the final home game of the season, they would win the WIAC championship outright.
After trailing by as much as eight in the second half, the Blugolds ended the game on a 9-1 run, clinching their eighth conference championship with a 62-58 victory.
Senior Kristi Channing led the way for the Blugolds, (22-1, 14-0 WIAC) scoring 22 points in the final regular-season home game of her career. Channing credited the Zorn Arena crowd for helping the Blugolds make their second-half comeback.
“The crowd was great,” Channing said. “To be honest, they fired us up on defense in the second half.”
The crowd was there to give support to the Blugolds’ departing seniors — Channing, guard Janel Soppeland and forward Kelly Guay. The seniors were honored at halftime when the Blugolds had a 28-27 lead.
After a Channing layup cut the Oshkosh lead to 45-39 with just over 10 minutes left in the second half, the Zorn Arena crowd of 1,357 rose as one, hoping to will the Blugolds into a defensive stand.
The fans got their wish, as junior Becca Spaeth stole an entry pass. The Blugolds scored on their next possession, and the crowd remained a factor for the rest of the game.
“I really think the crowd made the difference,” coach Tonja Englund said. “We knew this was going to be a war. Oshkosh played really well, and that made us a better team.”
Channing scored 14 of her 22 points in the second half, including two free throws with 41 seconds left to give the Blugolds a three-point lead. The free throws also helped Channing reach the 1,000 point plateau for her career. Channing now has 1,001 points as a Blugold, good for 11th on the team’s all-time scoring list.
Channing said she had no idea she was even close to the milestone,
After Channing’s free throws, the Blugolds made another defensive stop, then got the ball into the hands of Soppeland. Soppeland was fouled near mid-court, sending her to the free-throw line with the chance to clinch the game.
“I wasn’t thinking too much about (them),” Soppeland said about the free throws. “I wanted to make the first one for sure, but you can’t overanalyze it.”
After Soppeland made the first free throw, it didn’t matter that she missed the second; the Blugolds had enough of a cushion to be able to celebrate only the fourth outright conference championship in team history.
“We considered this a must-win game,” Soppeland said. “We wanted to win the championship here at home.”
Now that they’ve clinched the conference title, the Blugolds’ next challenge is to win their final two regular-season games so they can have some home games in the NCAA tournament.
“We want to win out,” Soppeland said. “Zorn is a tough place to play, and if the crowd is like this, it helps us out a lot.”
While the game was the final regular-season home game, the Blugolds expect a few more games in Zorn arena.
“You guys have been so great for us this year,” Englund said to the crowd after the game. “We hope to see all of you here in the playoffs.”