Women’s basketball runs over La Crosse

With a first-place matchup looming on the horizon, the Eau Claire women’s basketball team cruised past UW-La Crosse on Saturday, setting the stage for a showdown with UW-Stout.

The 78-56 win over the Eagles gives the Blugolds a 9-2 record in the WIAC, one game behind league-leading Stout.

The two teams will meet Wednesday night in Zorn Arena.

In the teams’ previous meeting, Stout handed Eau Claire its first loss of the season, an 87-79 setback in Menomonie.

Against La Crosse, the Blugolds jumped out to a 14-4 lead on their way to a 38-22 halftime lead.

Junior Kristi Channing led Eau Claire with 19 points. Junior Janel Soppeland and sophomore Becca Spaeth each reached double digits in points coming off the bench.

Soppeland and Channing both said the team’s depth has been important in its climb up the WIAC standings.

“We have different players step up every game,” Soppeland said. “We don’t have to put all of the pressure on one player.”

Eau Claire out-rebounded La Crosse 56-33, led by senior Sarah Hughes with 12.

The win was Eau Claire’s sixth in a row this season and 23rd in a row in the series with La Crosse.

The Eagles last beat the Blugolds on Dec. 17, 1990.

Despite the recent success against La Crosse, the Blugolds were careful not to overlook the Eagles as they prepared for Stout.

“I wouldn’t consider them an easy team to beat,” Soppeland said. “They’ve been playing well lately, and they gave Stout a run. If we wanted the Stout game to be a big game, we had to beat La Crosse.”

The game Wednesday night will be a matchup between two teams on a roll.

Stout has won five games in a row, and leads the WIAC with 83 points per game.

The Blugolds have been led by their defense in their current six-game streak, leading the WIAC by giving up only 57 points a game.

The teams split their games last season, with each team winning its home game.

The Blugolds have won five straight games against Stout in Zorn Arena, with the last loss being in 1997.

“We love to play at home,” said Channing, who has averaged a conference-best 18.7 points a game in WIAC play. “Our fans make a big difference. At the same time, a gym is a gym. They all have the same dimensions.”

Both Channing and Soppeland said an important part of the game Wednesday will be how well the Blugolds handle Stout’s press.

“We had problems with their press the first time,” Soppeland said. “We need to be smart and take care of the ball.”

Stout’s press has helped it lead the league with an average of nearly 18 steals a game.

The Blue Devils are also tops in the WIAC in turnover margin.

The Blugolds know this is one of their biggest games of the season, but they also know they shouldn’t get too excited for one game.

“It is a big game,” Channing said. “But it’s just another game. We have to show up for all of them.”