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UWS ups its game, creates history

By Jon Nowacki]

Duluth News Tribune

UW-Superior women’s basketball coach Don Mulhern was asked if it was safe to call the Yellowjackets’ stunning 84-63 victory over UW- Whitewater on Thursday night the biggest win in program history.

“I haven’t thought of it that way, but yeah, probably, that’s a pretty fair statement,” Mulhern said.

Long wallowing in the dregs of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the resurgent program finds itself where no UWS women’s basketball team has gone before: playing for a conference tournament title and an automatic berth into the NCAA Division III tournament.

After knocking off the 11th-ranked Warhawks, it doesn’t get any easier as the Yellowjackets (16-11) play at No. 15 Wisconsin-Oshkosh (23-3) at 3 p.m. today for the WIAC tournament championship.

Mulhern said UWS would need an effort like Thursday to knock off the Titans. Against top-seeded Whitewater, the fifth-seeded Yellowjackets delivered a pounding, outshooting the Warhawks 58 to 32 percent.

“We had a lot of players up their game,” said Mulhern, who guided the Yellowjackets to a program-record 19 wins last winter. “They stepped into the moment and came ready to play. We didn’t play scared at all. We took it to them early and late. We took it to them the whole game. We played with a sense of purpose and confidence. Half the battle is believing in yourself. We believed in ourselves and didn’t play tentatively.”

Leading the way as she has all season was junior guard Sally Linzmeier, who had game-highs of 21 points and 12 rebounds.

But Linzmeier is quick to point out she can’t do it all by herself. Five players reached double figures in scoring for the Yellowjackets, including 13 points off the bench from sophomore forward Hadley Skalmoski. The guard play, meanwhile, was outstanding against an up-tempo Warhawks team that thrives off the press.

“A lot of the players have bought into the idea that the rising tide raises all ships,” Mulhern said. “Meaning, I might have to sacrifice my own goals for the team, and if the team is better, we all win. It’s about being unselfish and doing whatever it takes for the team.”

Oshkosh, meanwhile, is more of a half-court team that methodically makes opposing defenses work deep into the shot clock.

Whitewater and Oshkosh swept two games apiece from UWS during the regular season and will likely get into the NCAA tournament. The Yellowjackets, meanwhile, are fighting for their proverbial playoff lives.

“We always believed we could beat Whitewater. We knew we matched up well with them,” Linzmeier said. “It’s hard to beat a good team three times in one season. We already knew we could play with them, so we just had to be focused. We were all in.”

Linzmeier is a leading candidate for WIAC player of the year after leading the league in both scoring (18.6 ppg) and rebounding (8.9 rpg).

Those stats are even more impressive when you consider Linzmeier’s physical stature.

Athletic rosters tend to inflate a person’s height, usually by an inch or two. Linzmeier is listed as 5-foot-7, and if she isn’t that, she swears she is all of 5-6½, especially with shoes on.

“When you measure someone’s height, you’re not measuring their heart,” Mulhern said. “Rebounding is a lot about will, it’s about mind over matter, it’s about pursuing every ball like it’s your own, and Sally does that. Those are things you can’t measure. There’s no ruler for that.”

Win or lose today, the season has already been a memorable one for the Yellowjackets.

They’ve won two conference tournament games for the first time. There were years where UWS didn’t win two games in an entire season, let alone a tournament, playing in arguably the best NCAA Division III conference in the nation. Those seasons appear to be fading while fonder memories are being made.

The team practiced for two hours Friday afternoon at Linzmeier’s old high school gym in Valders, Wis., population 962, just over an hour away from Oshkosh. They later planned on eating at Linzmeier’s home, where her mother, Jane, was going to make a feast of spaghetti, meatballs, garlic bread and strawberry shortcake for dessert.

“This has been amazing,” Linzmeier said. “Just to be back home and share this experience with my teammates, and my community, and how much they follow me, and support me, and to share that with my teammates is something I’ll never forget.”