GREEN BAY – It was only the third game of the season, and perhaps it might not matter much by the time March Madness rolls around.
But the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay women’s basketball team made an early statement last week when it went on the road and upset No. 22 Creighton 65-53 at D.J. Sokol Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Phoenix didn’t just beat the Bluejays.
It led 22-9 after the first quarter and by 14 points at halftime, and more importantly, it responded like a veteran team each time Creighton attempted a comeback in the second half.
The Bluejays got to within eight points in the final minutes of the third quarter, only for the Phoenix to end the quarter by scoring eight of the final nine points.
When Creighton cut its deficit to just four points with 5 minutes, 35 seconds remaining, UWGB scored six straight to pull away for good.
It was the 12 time in program history UWGB defeated a ranked opponent and the first since it beat No. 18 Syracuse in November 2018 at the Greater Victoria Invitational.
The team is 12-31 all-time against ranked teams but has won four of those games since 2017.
“We feel like we have got something special,” said longtime UWGB coach Kevin Borseth, whose team is 2-1 entering the Cancun Challenge on Thursday. “The Northern Iowa game kind of snakebit us right away (in a 78-67 loss to start the season). They played really well against us, and then we played really well against Illinois State (in an 88-62 win), and then of course, beat Creighton on the road.
“Creighton is a pretty good team. They are tough. Our kids really played with a lot of gusto in that game. It showed, because the outcome was in our favor.”
Borseth was asked an almost impossible question to answer: Had the game been played a few seasons ago, would a young UWGB team been able to withstand a hard charge by a ranked squad on the road?
Those kids are all grown up now for the Phoenix, and it does appear to matter.
It’s mostly the same story for its key reserves except for true freshman guard Maren Westin, who Borseth described before the season as a cross between McNeal and former UWGB standout guard Jen Wellnitz.
“It makes a difference, the experience does,” Borseth said. “You can make a quick adjustment because they have been around before. They understand. When you get into a game sometimes, you get overwhelmed by just the magnitude of the game or the situation. You are not able to comprehend things.
“But our kids have been there before. Been there, done that. It’s a pretty good situation right now. There is no guarantee we are going to win another game, but I think we have a pretty special squad here. I think we are, down the road, going to be really good.”
The goal is to be good now, but to be even better come the Horizon League tournament, when an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament will be at stake.
UWGB hasn’t been to the Big Dance since 2018.
“You want effort,” Borseth said. “You want players buying in to what is going on, and they are. Now the question is, can we give them enough as a coaching staff for them to continue to grow? With videotape and everything, you can’t stay in one spot. You have to continue to grow in every area.
“Our challenge right now is to make sure we continue to get our players in a better position to be successful, because you can only throw so many curveballs before the other team figures you out.”
UWGB prepares for holiday tournament
The team planned to travel to Chicago on Monday before flying to Mexico on Tuesday morning to take part in the Cancun Challenge.
It plays UMass on Thanksgiving, Maryland on Friday and No. 23 Washington State on Saturday.
All three games start at 12:30 p.m.
UWGB knocked Creighton from the AP Top 25 rankings, but it will get big tests against a Maryland team that received the most votes of any school that didn’t crack the rankings and a Washington State team that has started 5-0.
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Win or lose, the games should help prepare the Phoenix for its Horizon League opener at in-state rival UW-Milwaukee on Nov. 30.
The coaching staff will do its best to gameplan for three opponents in three days, but there is only so much that can be accomplished in such a short time frame.
“This is good for everybody,” Borseth said. “Good for all the teams to go down there and get a taste of what else is going on in basketball and the world. Not that it is going to do anything to solidify anything in our conference play, because that’s totally different.
“But at least it gives you an idea of where you are at and what you are looking at. That’s the biggest thing.”