Phoenix can still finish season strong

UW-Green Bay's Keifer Sykes was voted the Horizon League's preseason player of the year.
UW-Green Bay's Keifer Sykes was voted the Horizon League's preseason player of the year.
GREEN BAY – The atmosphere in the Resch Center Saturday night for the Horizon League semifinals was electric. A crowd of 7,113 filled the home of the top seeded Green Bay Phoenix. The mostly pro Phoenix crowd had more than a few UW-Milwaukee faithful screaming for the Panthers as well. There was no doubt this game would be a big one. It was one of the bigger games of the Brian Wardle era in Green Bay and the game was held in a building where the Phoenix have won 80 percent of their games under their current head coach. The thing about big games is they don’t always turn out the way you’d like. That’s what makes them big. If there was no doubt, no chance of the unexpected, what would be the point?

As you likely know by now, the game didn’t turn out in favor of the home team. The Green Bay Phoenix likely saw their hopes of an NCAA tournament bid ended Saturday night when they lost 73-66 in overtime to UW-Milwaukee in the semifinals of the Horizon League tournament.

"It's a tough loss. We wanted this win and the effort and competitive spirit was there but we just couldn't get it done," Brian Wardle said.

Rob Jeter’s Panthers proved to be a thorn in the side of the Phoenix during the regular season. The Panthers beat the Phoenix on their home floor and forced them to overtime when the two played in Milwaukee.

The Panthers play along with injuries during the game to Keifer Sykes, Alec Brown, and Alfonzo McKinnie proved to be a confluence of events that Green Bay was unable to overcome.  As Brian Wardle said in the post-game press conference, the Panthers made the big plays when they needed to and Green Bay didn’t.  A sense of disappointment and sadness was palpable among Wardle, Carrington Love, and Greg Mays, who represented their team in the post-game media session. A sense of regret that this team will more than likely not reach the biggest goal they laid out before them this season. That goal was a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 1995-96 season.

Following the game Brian Wardle talked about his team’s chances of making the tournament. "I'd love for them to still consider us. I don't know what the search committee will think,” Wardle said. “I know this loss hurts. I think this team can play with anyone and play on that stage. Tonight is defitely a setback for us, let's be honest and we know that as a group."

The Phoenix season isn’t done yet. Their Horizon League regular season title and 24-6 record will earn get them at worst into the NIT. Green Bay hasn’t played in the NCAA’s second best postseason tournament since the 1991-92 season.

"It's still a great accomplishment to play in the NIT,” Wardle said. It wasn't our vision.  “We had a great year. Now we just have to take a few days off and we'll get them ready to play. This is a competitive group. They have great pride.”

In the minutes following the game, the pain of the loss was clearly still stinging Greg Mays.  "This wasn't our goal to start the season. We have to deal with it now. There is no dealing with this, it's just terrible, to me."
All is not lost for the Phoenix team. While it would have been fun to see their high flying and hard charging brand of basketball on the NCAA tournament stage, setbacks are part of life. How those setbacks are handled is one of life’s greatest tests.  Here’s hoping the Phoenix rise to the occasion.