UWM 79, UW 67: It's a special game for UWM coach Kyle Rechlicz anytime Panthers face Badgers
Games between any of the four Division I collegiate basketball programs in the state have always been noteworthy events.
But for UW-Milwaukee women’s coach Kyle Rechlicz, games against the Wisconsin Badgers mean just a little bit more.
Her Panthers squared off against the Badgers – her alma mater and employer prior to her being hired at UWM in May 2012 – on Wednesday night at the Klotsche Center in a pre-Thanksgiving, non-conference tilt matching programs in distinctly different places.
Megan Walstad had a monster game with 21 points, eight rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes, leading the way to a 79-67 Panthers victory, while getting plenty of assistance from her teammates.
As a team, UWM turned 17 Badgers turnovers into 23 points and turned in what was easily their best shooting performance at 53.6% (30 for 56).
“Absolutely it means a little bit more,” said Rechlicz of facing UW. The Indianapolis native, then known as Kyle Black, was a three-point shooting ace from 1998-2002 and a co-captain for the 2000-01 and 2001-02 teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
She also spent the 2011-12 season in Madison as an assistant after starting her career with stints at Cleveland State and Dayton.
“After the game was over, I said to the team, ‘Thank you for getting this win,’ and McKaela Schmelzer whispered in my ear, ‘We got this one for you, Coach.’ I don’t put a heavy emphasis on it to my team," she said. "This team responds to having fun, and we’ve been doing that these last few games.”
UWM was seeking to return to even at 3-3 after dropping their first three games of the season, a somewhat surprising development considering they have almost everybody back from last season’s 20-8 team that tied for the regular-season Horizon League title.
First-year Badgers coach Marisa Moseley, considered a rising star in the industry, had seen her team endure three consecutive losses, most recently a highly embarrassing overtime defeat at home to a Chicago State team that hadn’t won a game since Jan. 18, 2020 – a span of 22 months and 27 games.
UWM and UW didn’t play last season with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to unintended scheduling changes.
The Badgers had won the previous two meetings, with the Panthers’ last win coming Dec. 14, 2017, in Madison. UW still owns the all-time series, 21-4, but Rechlicz improved to 3-4 against her former team as UWM coach.
The Panthers hold the advantage on in-state players on their roster at 7 to 5, but it was Clarksville, Ohio, product Miquela Santoro who poured in a game-high 14 points (two shy of her career high) on 7-for-9 shooting in 17 first-half minutes as the teams played their way to a 42-42 halftime tie.
UWM’s strength is in its inside players with the 6-2 Walstad and 6-3 Wittmershaus, yet UW had its way in the opening 20 minutes by shooting 66.7% and scoring 22 of its points in the paint.
The Panthers shot 57.6% themselves with Santoro doing most of her damage with mid-range jumpers.
The game turned UWM’s way in the third quarter, with five Badgers turnovers helping pave the way to a 19-9 advantage in the 10-minute period and a 61-51 lead in the game. Considering it was UW’s fifth game in 10 days, fatigue may well have been a factor as well.
The Panthers put the finishing touches on the Badgers in the fourth quarter, and at the end there was lots to like from Rechlicz’s point of view aside from Walstad’s big night.
Santoro set a new career high with 19 points. Wittmershaus had a career game of her own with 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. And Schmelzer, the sixth-year point guard, canned 4 of 5 three-point attempts.
“Our toughness,” Rechlicz said when asked what stood out most to her afterward. “Both teams played with a toughness mentality, kind of like you’re going to sacrifice and do anything to win. Which is fun – especially when the officials allow you to play like that.”
Having earned the unofficial title of “State Champion” after winning at Marquette and sweeping UW-Green Bay on the road last season, UWM has now won four straight against its in-state rivals. Marquette visits the Klotsche Center next on Dec. 8.
“Our team talks about trying to do everything they can to show that we’re one of the top teams in the state,” Rechlicz said. “It’s not easy to do. We’ve got really good teams in the state. It’s not an easy accomplishment.
“But I love these games. I want our team to be as challenged as possible before we hit Horizon League play. It’s really important to us that we play the best teams we can instead of playing an easier schedule because those are the games where we figure out who we are, and how we’re going to respond to difficult moments.”
Rechlicz also left no doubt that she believes Moseley, a former longtime assistant at Connecticut, was a great hire by UW.
“She’s an intense coach. You can tell her players enjoy playing for her,” she said. “Her system is very good. I think she’s a really good coach, and I’m excited to see what they do.
“I actually told my team that we were going to get their best game today, which we did. But I think that they’re going to be a totally different team come January than they are right now. I think Badger fans will see a much improved team.”