An improbable turnaround is stunningly complete.
After finishing last a season ago and being picked to finish the same way this season, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee men’s basketball team is back in the NCAA Tournament.
Tuesday in Dayton, Kelm Kyle dominated the game on the inside and the Panthers (21-13) never trailed in claiming a 69-63 win over Wright State to win the Horizon League Tournament title.
Kelm scored 20 points and just missed a double-double with nine rebounds. He was a huge part of Milwaukee’s early run, with the Panthers jumping out to a 24-9 advantage.
Tournament most valuable player Jordan Aaron then took control in the second half. His three-pointer with 8:02 remaining pushed the Panthers’ lead to 65-52 and he then hit two free throws with 31.5 seconds remaining to seal the win.
Aaron wound up with 18 points while Austin Arians added 12. Plus, Malcolm Moore had a strong, seven-point eight-rebound effort off the bench while Matt Tiby nailed a huge second-half three-pointer and grabbed the game-clinching rebound.
And, with that, the Panthers are dancing for the fourth time in school history.
“I’m so proud to represent the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the city, our fans, our team,” Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter said. “We all have battled through and persevered to bring home the Horizon League Championship for everybody that believed in us and everybody that stuck with us through the good times and the bad.”
The Panthers were quietly confident when the year began, with newcomers like Steve McWhorter and Tiby making their presence known. Milwaukee won nine of its first 11 games, a sign of what was possible later in the season.
“From day one you could tell these guys really liked each other,” Jeter said. “It’s not really talked enough about in sports. A key ingredient to winning is you have to have a group of guys that really care about each other.”
Milwaukee then had more than its share of bumps in the road down the stretch, including a home loss to last-place UIC two weeks ago. But they answered the bell in a key road win at Detroit to end the regular season and haven’t stopped since.
“This team right here, we have fought through every adversity possible,” Aaron said. “We’ve been at our highest and at our lowest and we never gave up on one another. These guys next to me and those guys in the locker room, they are tremendous teammates. Coming into this tournament it came down to guarding men and seeing how tough you are. I think we came together and did great job of getting stops when we needed to against the best in the Horizon League.”
Kelm has experienced a major senior-season turnaround, upping his scoring average by better than seven points per game. He was in control Tuesday night.
“Defense and rebounding is what I consider tough, and getting to 50-50 balls,” Kelm said. “We’ve been getting outrebounded all year and coming into this tournament it was something we had to pick up.”
The 24-9 lead set the tone, and Milwaukee carried a 43-33 lead into the locker room. The Raiders pulled within six early in the second half but the Panthers answered, with Aaron’s three pushing the lead back to 60-48. It was 65-52 when Wright State answered with one more rally, pulling within 67-63 with a minute left. But Aaron drove hard to the hoop on the next possession and drew a foul, making two free throws to put the game away.
Milwaukee finds out its NCAA Tourmament opponent and destination Sunday.