This one hurt.

Holding a two-possession lead with 11.2 seconds left, the UW-La Crosse men’s basketball team was on the cusp of a major win against No. 2 UW-Whitewater on Saturday that would shake up the WIAC. But missed free throws and a some bad defense down the stretch cost the Eagles their second upset of the week, as they fell to Whitewater 67-64 in overtime in front of 348 people at Mitchell Hall.

After defeating No. 13 UW-River Falls on Wednesday, it felt like the Eagles were finally able to get over that hump of pulling out close games. But that turned out not to be the case on Saturday. This marks the fourth WIAC loss for the Eagles, all four of which are by a combined 14 points.

“It’s very frustrating for us as a team, cause we know we are just so close in all of these games,” junior guard Taulvish McCray said. “We know it’s just that little step we have to take, that hump we have to get over like against River Falls. We aren’t executing and aren’t pulling it out at the end. It’s frustrating because we aren’t going to get any recognition for how good we are and we have a three-point loss to No. 2 team in the nation and No. 7 team in the nation. We are right there.”

Rory O'Driscoll, La Crosse Tribune
UW-La Crosse head coach Kent Dernbach directs his team during the first half of Saturday's WIAC game against UW-Whitewater at Mitchell Hall.

It came down to a lack of execution Saturday night. After McCray sank two free throws to put UW-L up 55-51 with 11.2 seconds left, the Eagles defense cracked. La Crosse allowed an easy 3-pointer from the top of the key after McCray and Meinholz got mixed up defending a pick-and-roll. The Warhawks then fouled Tanner Bruchs, who after making the first free throw, missed the second to give Whitewater life with 8.2 seconds remaining. On the ensuing possession, the Eagles (10-7, 2-4) allowed All-WIAC guard Andre Brown to go coast-to-coast before being fouled on a layup attempt with 3 seconds left. He made both free throws and after McCray missed a desperation 3 at the buzzer, the game went to overtime.

“A number of guys stepped up and we were able to hold a team averaging 75 points a game in league play to 19 in the first half,” UW-L interim coach Kent Dernbach said. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to keep that same defensive effort in the second half. We did enough to win that game. We had a four-point lead with under 15 seconds to go, unfortunately we weren’t able to execute down the stretch.”

In overtime, McCray made two free throws to give the Eagles a 62-60 lead, but the Warhawks closed it out on a 7-2 run. Bruchs had a chance to tie it at the end after the Eagles got the ball back with about seven seconds left, but the shot was long and Whitewater escaped with a victory.

“We are losing against really good basketball teams,” Dernbach said. “We are a pretty good team ourselves. I need to do a better job of putting our guys into positions where we can pull close games out consistently. We are doing it on occasion, but we haven’t been able to do it consistently.

“Credit goes out to these young men, we have put ourselves into position each and every game to beat good teams on the road and at home. Unfortunately, we have come out on the wrong side of it more than the right side.”

Brandon Manning led the Eagles offense with 15 points while tallying nine rebounds. But it was McCray that gave the Eagles life, especially on a night that saw Eagles’ leading scorer Ben Meinholz held to six points on 3-for-12 shooting. Despite battling flu-like symptoms, the 5-foot-10 guard finished with 14 points and six assists.

“Taulvish was a little bit under the weather today,” Dernbach said. “But he showed his heart and toughness today. He’s done that all year.”

But it came down to defense and after holding the Warhawks (14-3, 4-2) to just 19 points on 6-for-26 shooting in the first half, Whitewater was able to break through in the second half and overtime shooting 15-for-28 and 6-for-12 from beyond the arc. The UW-L offense did their best to match, shooting 16-for-36 between the second half and overtime, but missed several good looks from 3 and at the free-throw line. The Eagles finished 5-for-20 from beyond the arc and 11-for-18 from the charity stripe.

“This program isn’t about being right there,” Dernbach said, “it’s about pulling out victories. Especially on your home floor in this league.

“Now our job is to get our bodies ready for Sunday and be prepared for classes on Monday and come back and have a good practice on Monday.”