For the second time in three WIAC games, the UW-La Crosse men’s basketball team’s defense in the second half did it in.
A team that has built its identity on defense was unable to slow down the comeback charge of Eau Claire on Wednesday at Mitchell Hall, as the Eagles lost 75-41 in front of 240 people.
The loss puts UW-L (11-11, 3-8) into a tie with the Blugolds (11-11, 3-8) for the sixth and final spot in the WIAC tournament with three conference games remaining.
Eau Claire pounded the ball into the lane often, and La Crosse didn’t do enough to cut off the Blugolds’ dribble penetration. On the occasional trip UW-L could cut off the drive, the Blugolds found a man cutting behind the defense to get an easy basket.
The Blugolds led points in the paint by a 48-18 margin, and won the second half 53-30.
“We really left the guy guarding the ball on an island,” UW-L interim coach Kent Dernbach said. “And then on the ball, we leaned and lunged, giving up those straight-line drives.”
Eau Claire senior forward Chris Duff scored a game-high 19 points, while senior guard George Diekelman had 16. UW-L junior Taulvish McCray scored a team-high 14 points; three others scored eight.
La Crosse had 14 turnovers, and Eau Claire scored 20 points off of them.
“We tried to dribble into gaps and tried to make a play for ourselves rather than for our teammate,” Dernbach said.
A focus on getting better looks in the last eight minutes of the first half propelled the Eagles to a nine-point lead at halftime. After being tied at 13 midway through the half, La Crosse closed the first half on an 18-9 run to build an advantage. UW-L shot 53.8 percent in the half after a slow start and was led by McCray’s nine points on 4-for-4 shooting.
Junior forward Brendon Manning had some creative finishes around the rim to tally seven of his eight points in the opening half.