As the late, great Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” No group of Milwaukee Panthers ever embodied that line more than the 2013-14 team under Rob Jeter. Picked to finish dead last at the beginning of the season by coaches and SID’s around the Horizon League, no one thought the Panthers would represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament.
A season-opening loss to Loyola, with the referees calling a questionable loose ball foul against Bobo Niang, seemed to be indicative of the Panthers program as a whole – so close to the mountaintop but tripped up at the end, while a lesser program sneaks by (Loyola to the MVC).
The victory at Davidson was the coming out party for Matt Tiby, a letter to the country that the next Panther great had arrived. Over the non-conference season, the Panthers took care of business, but the Horizon League proved a different story altogether.
Milwaukee took some lickings, and was eliminated from the regular season championship early. Matters got worse when star guard Jordan Aaron was suspended for four games at the end of the season for breaking team rules: a suspension, as it turns out, was a blessing in disguise.
Heading into the Horizon League Tournament as the fifth seed, the Panthers were just 7-9 during the conference season and no one’s pick to win the title. It didn’t make things easier to have archrival Green Bay riding their best team in twenty years to a Horizon League Regular Season Championship.
Things have a funny way of working out. Jevon Lyle, seldom used during the season, was rested and ready to go. Malcolm Moore, who didn’t become a featured player until the conference season, was just getting into gear and didn’t have a full season on his odometer. The aforementioned Jordan Aaron got four games and a bunch of practice time off; his rested legs were apparent in every game of the 2014 Horizon League Tournament.
Dropping the Detroit Titans unceremoniously in the first round proved nothing to the pundits; the five seed just held court against a talented-but-pedestrian Detroit team. Once the Panthers walloped the Valparaiso Crusaders in the quarterfinals, however, the conference started to pay attention.
Green Bay was hungry. It had been nearly twenty years since the Phoenix had dominated the Horizon League, so long ago that it was called the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. The only time the ‘Nix had won a game in the NCAA Tournament, they toppled Jason Kidd and Cal. Needless to say, when the Milwaukee Panthers walked into the Resch Center for a semifinal date with the conference champions, they were heading into a raucous environment where just about everyone hated their bleeding guts.
Alec Brown was in the conversation for the best true center the conference had ever seen. Keifer Sykes was the Conference Player of the Year, a guard with unbelievable athleticism and scoring ability packaged in a mid-major body. Milwaukee had an incredible uphill battle to fight.
Yet, they never looked uphill. In the most important game in the history of the rivalry, the Panthers built a big lead. Even when they lost it, Milwaukee never gave up. The Panthers clawed and when Jordan Aaron tied the game with 15 seconds left, no one was surprised. This game had to go to overtime. It had to be Green Bay. It had to be in their building. It had to be on national television.
Everything lined up.
Milwaukee’s trio of star players were the only Panthers to score in the game – Kyle Kelm, Jordan Aaron and Matt Tiby. They did so in the ways that made them all special. Kelm slamming home a dunk after four years of hearing that he didn’t play an exciting brand of basketball. Aaron calmly faking out a defender and hitting a silky jumper. Tiby drawing fouls and icing the game at the line.
It was Green Bay’s year, and Milwaukee took it from them. Keifer Sykes, with his NBA talent, was hobbled in the first half on a weird play. Sometimes, the players don’t decide. Sometimes, history decides. Circumstance decides. On that day, Milwaukee won the decision, behind a talented group of kids.
Three days later, they walked into the Nutter Center, in front of another insane crowd. No one was nervous. Milwaukee was the Team of Destiny. Just as it had to be Green Bay, in the Finals it had to be Wright State. At Wright State. Where Milwaukee hadn’t won in over a decade.
They handled their business. Jordan Aaron won Tournament MVP honors. In the NCAA Tournament the following week, Milwaukee threw a scare into Villanova before fading away down the stretch, losing a game by twenty that never seemed to be that far apart.
It was okay. Everyone walked away disappointed, but the truth is they were never supposed to be there. Yet there they were, playing on the same court just a half hour after the eventual national champions escaped St. Joe’s.
Milwaukee had what they came for. They went to the NCAA Tournament. They won the Horizon League Tournament.
They became Banner Boys.
|Jordan Aaron||Austin Arians||Quinton Gustavson||Kyle Kelm||Jevon Lyle||Steve McWhorter|
|Malcolm Moore||Thierno Niang||J.J. Panoske||Evan Richard||Mitch Roelke||Matt Tiby||Cody Wichmann|