If there was ever a "must-must-must" win game this season for your Milwaukee Panthers, this past Saturday's contest in Green Bay was it.
The Panthers got into action early on the offensive end and didn't let up until time had expired. Paris Gulley (20pts) was simply on fire from outside, canning 6 of his 7 three point attempts.
Overall, the Panthers were 12-23 (52%) from outside, a hugely improved 49% from the field, and last but in no way less important than anything else positive on the offensive front, in the words of Coach Jeter, "How about that? We made free throws".
Milwaukee looked like an entirely different team from the line, sinking 15 of 18 attempts, good for 83%. (Duke just lost in OT last night to Miami- largely because they went 0-6 from the free throw line... there are good reasons why people (fans, coaches, etc.) harp on making those shots when you get the opportunity. It's just gotta be an automatic stroke.
Those are the kind of offensive numbers that we need to see in these final 5 regular season league contests if we are to secure a decent (ie. #2?) seed in the Horizon League Tournament.
And our defense, despite giving up 75 points, wasn't as ineffective as the score would suggest. Ryan Allen, who despite putting up 2 crucial blocks, was inexplicably not credited with said blocks.
There seems to be a common consensus among Milwaukee fans that Green Bay's SID/scorekeeper may have had something to do with this obvious slight (Alec Brown is the main competition against Ryan Allen for the Horizon League's Defensive POY honor).
The Phoenix' Alec Brown and Keifer Sykes were a handful and them some, though. This game was solidly in hand for much of both halves, but every time Milwaukee seemed to extend the lead to 8 or 10 points, Sykes would find his way into the lane for a quick lay-in or 8 foot floater.
He may appear to be a 17 year old AAU sensation, but Keifer Sykes is a very talented D-I freshman guard and will be a handful for all Horizon League teams for years to come.
In the end, the Milwaukee Panthers prevailed and Panther Nation breathed a deep sigh of relief. Perhaps the sky isn't falling as many had accepted just a few short days ago. Or maybe we just got a "lucky" road win against an average Green Bay team on an afternoon when our shots just couldn't miss.
Either way- a win is a win is a win. No two ways around it. If we can carry this momentum into Callahan Hall (and onto the newly christened Dick Vitale court) and hopefully all the way to the end of the regular season, we could position ourselves to finish this season out on a great note.
Our final regular season home game vs. Cleveland State could determine whether we play an on-campus 1st round game- or it could determine the 2-seed. It's largely up to how we fare in these next two road games.
Like it or not- we are where we are and we must win our remaining games. There is literally zero room for error now. The past is in the past- the future is up for grabs and still up to our boys in black and gold (and gray) us to decide.
Sure, it would have been nice to pull out a win at Youngstown (or defend our home floor against both Youngstown and Valpo- two challenges we dropped the ball in overcoming..), but after losing 4 of 5, and sinking in the standings like a lead balloon, the Panthers desperately needed a big road victory to get some confidence back and get their season back on track.
Milwaukee (15-10 (8-5)), though still fighting an uphill battle after the unfortunate losses suffered recently, now sits in sole position of 3rd place and is quietly but persistently nipping at the heels of second-place Valparaiso.
Cleveland State, who has lost just 2 league contests will be a tougher nut to crack, unless they drop some very unexpected games in this final Horizon League race to the finish (but as we saw last season... anything can happen in February). Sure would be nice to have an electric atmosphere for our final regular season home game.
The team gets a full week of rest this week, with Detroit "welcoming" us to Callahan this Friday night. The game was originally a shoe-in to be televised on ESPNU, but somehow through a fluke in ESPN's "Facebook voting" system or other reasons a lot of die-hard and casual Horizon League fans don't understand, it lost out to the "prime-time" showdown of #7 Wright State vs. #8 Green Bay.
And by the way ESPN, I don't even have a "Facebook" anymore (I'll keep my life to myself and my real "friends", thanks)- what do people like me do?
Nevermind that a #3 Milwaukee vs. #5 Detroit match-up just might have been a tad more important and entertaining of a Horizon League game to showcase on the nationally syndicated ESPNU....
Well, I guess we won't get a single nationally televised game this season... that is, unless we make it to the Semis and/or Title game... Play like we did at Green Bay and that's not out of the question..
In any case, the game will be called by an ESPN broadcast team and streamed on espn3.com. Make sure to pull that up on your computer or AV setup and/or listen to the call on WISN 1130 by Bill Johnson and his new play-by-play compliment (either Jerard Ajami or Kevin O'Conner).
Simply put, if our home game against Youngstown was our previous "must-win", this game in Detroit is just as much if not more of a "must-win".
We literally must-win every game left on the schedule (with the exception of the Fairfield Bracketbusters game, but one never wants to lose momentum at the close of the regular season when momentum counts the most..).
Every day of recuperation will help this team who has suffered so much and still managed to stay afloat- we are still atop the "middle of the pack" in the Horizon League... that simply would not have been the case if we had dropped the game in Green Bay.
But we didn't. As I said, maybe it was a fluke strong offensive outing; maybe it was a sign of things to come.
Always the eternal optimist- I am banking on the latter.