Lady Blugolds headed to semifinals

Story by Ashley Hofer

For a young team with a tough schedule, the 2009-10 season provided challenges at times, coach Tonja Englund said. But when it mattered most, she said the lady Blugolds played like veterans.

“From start to finish, I thought they showed a lot of maturity, a lot more game sense down the stretch to be able to win close games,” Englund said. “We looked like a more experienced team.”

That demonstration of experience helped UW-Eau Claire claim a big 61-57 playoff victory over No. 3 UW-La Crosse Tuesday night. The win moves Eau Claire on to the semifinals of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament, where the team will face No. 1 UW-Whitewater.

The first period at La Crosse was a back-and-forth battle for most of the 20 minutes. Eau Claire found the scoreboard first, but neither team was able to open up more than a five-point lead throughout the half. The teams headed for the locker room 30-28, with La Crosse holding the two-point advantage.

Although the Eagles entered the second period with the lead, it would be the Blugolds’ half. Layups by freshman Sarah Bingea and junior Hannah Mesick within the first minute-and-a-half of the period gave Eau Claire the lead.

And the team never looked back.

The Blugolds came out firing on all cylinders and scored 10 unanswered points during the first four minutes of the period. The team worked to build as much as a 12-point lead near the middle of the period. But La Crosse wasn’t about to let the game slip away so easily. The Eagles pecked away at the lead, bringing it down to a mere two points with less than a minute to play.

“We made some critical mistakes and let them come back and get close,” Mesick said. “We had to lockdown and play with poise.”

Mesick was one of those who remained composed. With just two seconds remaining in the game, she blocked a last-effort shot by La Crosse and was fouled with one second remaining. Mesick nailed the two resulting free throws and the Blugolds advanced to the next round with a final score of 61-57.

“We knew it was a tough game going into it,” Bingea said. “It was close at the end, but we came out with the win, and that’s the main thing.”

Mesick said the team had plenty of inspiration to play well.

“We really wanted to win, partly for coach,” she said. “She deserves it after all of the hard work she’s put in with us this season. We also wanted to win for our seniors.”

“This is a team we want to keep playing.,” Mesick said. “We left it all out on the floor.”

The win also marked Englund’s 200th career victory with Eau Claire. Englund said having the landmark occur in this particular game was truly special.

“It was really fun to have that happen in such a big game for such a young team,” she said, crediting the many players and assistant coaches that have passed through the program. “It’s been a really rewarding coaching situation this year.”

The Lady Blugolds now advance to the semifinals of the WIAC championship. The team will face UW-Whitewater, the No. 1 seed of the tournament. Eau Claire split the two games against the Warhawks earlier this season, with the most recent face-off resulting in a 62-54 loss.

But Eau Claire played Whitewater in the semifinals of the WIAC tournament last year – and won. The Blugolds have played the Warhawks a total of three times in the playoffs and have never lost.

“We’re excited to play Whitewater,” Mesick said, adding the history may put pressure on the Warhawks. “I think they’re a hard-pressed team.”

Englund said tonight’s matchup will be an interesting one, as the Warhawks’ strength is in the guard position while Eau Claire’s lies in the posts. While a win in itself would be great, to win with this team will be especially meaningful, she said.

“To have this group of people right now win in Whitewater and get them to a conference championship will really pay off with everything we’ve done during the season and how we’ve stuck together as a team.”

The semifinals game will begin at 6 p.m. tonight in Whitewater. The winner will move on to the finals and play the victor of the matchup between UW-Stout and UW-Stevens Point.