MILWAUKEE — “We’re the defending Horizon League tournament champs, and we played like that tonight,” UW-Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter said after the Panthers men’s basketball team (12-16, 7-7) defeated Cleveland State (17-12, 11-4) 66-60 at home on Sunday afternoon.
After all, that was exactly what he promised last year after his team was declared ineligible to play in the 2015 postseason for a subpar three-year Academic Performance Rate (APR).
“We can’t play in the tournament, but we still can play like champions,” Jeter said, “and that’s what we’ve been trying to get these guys to do this conference season.
“We’ve had some bumps, but these guys always kind of find a way down the stretch to be better, be tougher, and this group did it.”
With just two strokes of his wrist, J.J. Panoske led the Panthers to a 6-0 lead. He scored a career-high 19 points and knocked down five of his eight threes in the contest. But, characteristic of a Jeter-groomed ball player, he shared the spotlight with his teammates.
“I just took what was there,” was all Panoske said of his individual performance.
Instead, he attributed his success, and that of his team, to Steve McWhorter’s decision to return to UWM for his senior year.
McWhorter, who scored 13 points and nine assists, took the reins from UWM’s leading scorer in 2013-2014, Aaron “Jay-O” Jordan. McWhorter ended the season in fifth in team scoring playing alongside Aaron.
“Who would have thought Steve McWhorter would be leading us in scoring this year after last year?” said Jeter. “I never would have thought that, but he is doing it, and he’s been doing it since the beginning of the year.”
McWhorter’s leadership elevated the productivity of his teammates, and his playmaking ability was central to the Panthers’ victory.
With less than four minutes remaining in the game, UWM was trailing Cleveland State 54-55 following one of Panoske’s triples. The Panthers’ defense held up, and McWhorter opened up on a fast break, drawing triple coverage as he drove into the paint. Then he threw a no-look pass to Panoske at the top of the key.
The 3,000 fans in attendance erupted in cheers and were on their feet as UWM took the lead.
McWhorter played 36 minutes in his final home game, staying in until he made two free throws with eight seconds left. After the second shot fell through the basket, Jeter took him out and greeted him with a hug as he made it to the bench.
“It was kind of surreal,” McWhorter said. “I don’t think it really hit me yet that this is it here at the Panther Arena.
“I couldn’t have wrote it better — to go out beating Cleveland State, for the first time since I’ve been here, on the home court, on senior night. I just really feel blessed, and I’m thankful.”
It was also the final home game for senior Evan Richard, who started the game. In addition, before the game, the team honored former player Demetrius Harris, now a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, by giving his bobblehead to the first 1,000 fans.
The Panthers travel to Wright State next for a Thursday matchup against the Raiders. Tip off is at 6 pm.