Defending champion UW-Oshkosh is headed back to the WIAC Women's Basketball Championship (presented by Culver's) title game for the seventh consecutive year after trouncing top-seeded and nationally ranked UW-Whitewater, 81-65, during the semifinals Thursday (Feb. 27) in Whitewater.
UW-Oshkosh (17-10), seeded fourth in the WIAC Championship, never trailed after knotting the score at 21 late in the first quarter. The Titans then took the lead for good at 24-21 on a Nikki Arneson 3-pointer with 21 seconds to play in the opening period. UW-Oshkosh went on to outscore UW-Whitewater, 24-14, during the second quarter and 17-10 in the third period en route to eliminating the Warhawks from the conference tournament for the second straight season. The Titans, the first fourth-seeded team to reach the championship game, led by double figures for the final 22 minutes.
UW-Whitewater (23-3), ranked fourth in the NCAA Division III by D3hoops.com, and UW-Oshkosh had met in each of the past three WIAC postseason championship games. The Titans, who have handed the Warhawks two of their three losses this season, also defeated UW-Whitewater by a 62-51 score Jan. 25 in Oshkosh. The Warhawks, winners of 18 of their last 20 home games, beat UW-Oshkosh, 75-71, in their most recent matchup Feb. 19 in Whitewater.
The Warhawks are the highest ranked team UW-Oshkosh has defeated since the D3hoops.com poll debuted in the 1999-2000 season.
Leah Porath, the WIAC leading scorer at 17.6 points per game, led all players with 22 points for the Titans. Katie Ludwig scored all 15 of her points during the first half for UW-Oshkosh while Arneson finished with 13. Porath increased her season total to 476 points – the most by a Titan since Wendy Wangerin had 559 in 1995-96 en route to being named the Division III Player of the Year for national champion UW-Oshkosh. Ludwig went 5-for-5 from the field in the first half, including 4-for-4 from 3-point range.
Brooke Freitag and Emily Miller chipped in eight points apiece for UW-Oshkosh, which also received six points to go along with a team-high seven rebounds and six assists from Olivia Campbell, who leads the conference with 4.1 assists per contest and a 1.93 assist-to-turnover ratio.
UW-Oshkosh, seeking its sixth WIAC Championship title, will play in the final Saturday (Feb. 29) at third-seeded UW-Eau Claire. UW-Eau Claire (18-9), which secured its spot in the final with a 59-56 victory at second-seeded UW-La Crosse (19-7) on Thursday, won both regular season meetings with the Titans by scores of 62-60 Jan. 15 in Oshkosh and 66-62 Feb. 5 in Eau Claire. The WIAC tournament winner receives the league's automatic berth to the 64-team Division III Championship that begins March 6.
The Titans concluded the semifinal shooting 24 of 53 (.453) from the field, 9-for-24 (.375) from 3-point range and 24 of 32 (.750) at the free throw line. UW-Oshkosh had advantages of 14-10 in assists and 3-2 in steals.
UW-Whitewater shot 32.4 percent (23-71) from the floor, 25 percent (4-16) from beyond the 3-point arc and 78.9 percent (15-19) at the foul line. The Warhawks held edges of 44-39 in rebounds, 6-9 in turnovers and 5-3 in blocks. UW-Whitewater was whistled for 26 fouls while UW-Oshkosh committed just 13.
Veronica Kieres and Johanna Taylor had a team-high 11 points apiece on a combined 7-for-21 shooting from the field for UW-Whitewater. Kieres added a game-best eight rebounds while Taylor grabbed seven boards and recorded two blocks.
UW-Whitewater's Aleah Grundahl contributed nine points, six rebounds and two blocks.
UW-Oshkosh went into Thursday leading the country with 12.2 turnovers per game while also pacing the conference in field goal (.426) and 3-point (.338) percentages, made 3-pointers per game (7.6) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.07). UW-Whitewater was the WIAC leader in scoring (68.8), scoring defense (52.2), field goal (.326) and 3-point (.266) percentage defense, average turnover margin (+3.6), and per-game turnovers forced (19.0), steals (10.0) and blocks (5.4).
UW-Whitewater allowed 80 points for the first time this season while its two steals Thursday were its fewest this year and its .324 field goal percentage was second lowest.
Arneson's 3-pointer near the end of the first quarter continued a string of nine unanswered UW-Oshkosh points as Porath knocked down a 3-pointer during the opening minute of the second quarter before Arneson made two free throws for a 29-21 UW-Oshkosh lead with 8:42 to go before halftime. Karsyn Rueth later drilled a 3-pointer that extended the Titans' cushion to 35-25, and two Freitag free throws provided UW-Oshkosh a 48-35 advantage at intermission.
UW-Oshkosh then put the game away with seven straight points to open the second half as Freitag's 3-pointer was followed by Arneson and Miller jumpers for a 55-35 lead with 8:02 left in the third quarter. The Titans built their largest cushion of 26 points on two occasions in the fourth period. UW-Oshkosh owned a 73-47 advantage following a Porath jumper with 6:48 to play and owned a 74-49 lead 28 seconds later after a pair of Porath free throws.
UW-Oshkosh, which will make its 13th trip to the championship game, now boasts a WIAC-best 28-13 record in the league tournament overall and 13-2 in the semifinals. The Titans improved to 7-2 against UW-Whitewater in the WIAC postseason, including a 69-40 win in last year's final. UW-Oshkosh won league tournament titles in 1999, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019. UW-Eau Claire, making its eighth appearance in the final, clinched conference postseason crowns in 2000, 2001 and 2003.
Photo courtesy of Larry Radloff, D3photography.com