Women topple Stout

Aaron Vehling

With all of the advantages and prestige associated with being the No. 1 team in the nation, there is one major disadvantage: you become a target for every team in the country.

The UW-Eau Claire women’s basketball team found out Tuesday it is the No. 1 ranked team in the d3hoops.com national poll, then hosted UW-Stout Wednesday in the WIAC semifinal in front of a crowd of 1,654 at Zorn Arena.

Blugolds 83
Stout 70

Despite beating Stout twice during a perfect conference season, the Blugolds would be tested by the Blue Devils pressure defense.

It wasn’t easy, but the Blugolds passed their next test.

After blowing a 16-point halftime lead, the Blugolds (26-1) gathered themselves in the second half to put away the Blue Devils 83-70 and advance to the WIAC championship game.

The Blugolds will play Saturday against UW-Oshkosh, who advanced to the final with a 83-76 win over UW-Stevens Point.

In the first half, the Blugolds looked like the No. 1 team in the country, shooting 50 percent from the floor and nearly doubling-up the Blue Devils in rebounds. Sophomore Katie Murphy drilled a 3-pointer from the corner with five seconds left in the half to give the Blugolds a 44-28 halftime lead.

At the beginning of the second half, however, Stout increased its defensive pressure, leading to a 22-7 run that helped the Blue Devils tie the game at 51.

With the sizeable Stout crowd at its loudest, the Blugolds collected themselves after a timeout.

“We knew we had to keep our composure down the stretch,” senior Janel Soppeland said. “This was a good test for us, because you’ll never really put Stout away.”

Coach Tonja Englund said the Blugolds knew Stout would come out pressing, and said it was a credit to the team that they were able to pull out the win.

“In that situation, you always look to your seniors,” she said. “Janel played fabulous tonight. We had some foul trouble, but we had to make sure our seniors were on the floor.”

Soppeland made 11-of-12 free throws in the game on her way to a game-high 23 points. She wasn’t the only Blugold making free throws, either. Eau Claire shot 33-for-48 from the stripe in the game, compared to 18-for-28 for the Blue Devils.

“(Free throws) was all we worked on,” Englund said. “We knew that would be a key to this game.”

Soppeland was one of five Blugolds to hit double figures in points. Sophomore Emilee Planert had 14 points off of the bench, including seven free throws late in the second half.

Murphy had 13 for Eau Claire, and hit probably the biggest shot of the game; a 3-pointer with 3:24 left to give the Blugolds a 70-61 lead.

After Murphy’s three, the Blugolds scored 11 of their final 13 points from the free throw line, reaping the benefits of Stout’s 33 fouls in the game.

“Whenever you get a fast-paced team like that, there are going to be a lot of fouls called,” Planert said. “We can’t do anything about how the game gets called.”

Four Blue Devils ended up fouling out of the game, including junior Sara Kahl, who fouled out with 11:52 left in the game. She still led the team with 14 points.

The Blugolds advanced to the semifinal after a 76-41 home victory over UW-River Falls on Monday. After leading by only seven at halftime, Eau Claire dominated the second half, outscoring River Falls 44-16 to cruise to the 35-point victory.

Murphy helped Eau Claire blow the game open, making back-to-back 3-pointers during a 15-2 run early in the second half.

The Blugolds never trailed against the Falcons, despite shooting only 33 percent in a foul-plagued first half. In the second half, Eau Claire was better able to find the open shot.

“They switched to man on us,” Murphy said about the start of the second half. “We wanted to go inside more. Once we got our shots going, it opened things up a lot.”

Murphy led the Blugolds with 16 points against River Falls, with freshman Rachel Becker getting 14 off the bench. Junior Brooke Wozniak had 17 rebounds against the Falcons, then pulled down 10 against the Blue Devils.