Jason Janke has repeatedly said that he and his coaching staff have seen progress from their girls basketball team despite its recent five-game losing streak.
The Panthers' progress was made evident to not only the Ellsworth coaching staff but also the team and their fans on Thursday, Dec. 28 when Ellsworth finished their game against the Glenwood City Hilltoppers (3-7, 2-2) with a 68-58 win.
With their victory over the Hilltoppers, the Panthers (3-4, 0-4) showed that they are not just a team that crumbles under pressure, but rather, one that fights its way to the top when faced with adversity.
The two teams traded turnovers in the first four possessions of the game, but the Hilltoppers soon found their rhythm while the Panthers continued to make unforced errors, which led to an early 12-5 advantage for GC.
Emma Swanson found Kaitlyn Nugent who ended the Panthers' cold streak, and an old-fashioned three-point play from Olivia Lynner closed the gap to 16-10 before Janke called Ellsworth's first timeout with 8:37 left in the first half.
Out of the timeout, the Hilltoppers converted a high-low find from Mariah Voeltz to Delaney Quinn for an easy bucket, and the Panthers quickly switched out of their 1-3-1 defense to a tight man-to-man coverage. After switching out of their zone defense, the Panthers forced two GC turnovers, which turned into an Olivia Lynner three and a Swanson breakaway layup. GC was able to create three more successful scoring opportunities, but Ellsworth responded with another Lynner basket, a Nugent layup and a Nadia Sigler free throw, which gave them their first lead of the night at 25-24 with 2:30 on the clock.
The Hilltoppers picked up three free throws to finish the half, but the Panthers extended their lead with a Sigler three-point play, another Swanson-to-Nugent find, and a Swanson free throw to land a 31-27 lead at the half.
In between halves, the Panthers found themselves in a similar situation they'd been presented with against New Richmond and Somerset, but this time the final outcome would be in Ellsworth's favor.
Autumn Earney got things rolling in the second half by turning two steals into breakaway layups for four early Panther points, and GC's head coach Dean Fayerweather decided to talk things over with his team at the 15:39 mark after a Nugent three put his team down by seven.
Ellsworth's defensive flaws were soon highlighted after the Panthers found themselves in foul trouble and Quinn continued to get open looks at the rim. With 12:37 left in the game, Ellsworth committed their seventh foul and sent the Hilltoppers to the charity stripe where they'd shoot for the rest of the half. Voeltz was unsuccessful at the line, but another Quinn basket tied the game up at 41-41.
With the lead in jeopardy, the Panthers looked to get the ball to Nugent who scored two more buckets for her team, but the Panthers' leading scorer was also assisted by a three-pointer from teammate Mason Back and a Taylor Feuerhelm left-handed drive to the basket.
The game was once again tied at 52-52 with 4:55 left in regulation, but once Earney and Sigler checked back into the game with four fouls each, Earney drained a three-pointer to give the Panthers a confidence boost and the lead they'd build off of for the rest of the night.
The Hilltoppers managed to get back within one point with 1:33 left in the game, but unlike Ellsworth's prior tight games, the Panthers were able to hold on to a 68-58 victory to put a necessary end to their five-game losing streak.
"It felt great," Janke said about snapping his team's losing streak. "The girls made some clutch shots and made some really good decisions, and we fought back through some adversity."
Janke's team's "good decisions" late in the game included getting the ball into their top scorers' hands in crunch time. On Thursday night, the Panthers' go-to woman was Nugent.
"Kaitlyn is just getting better and better," Janke said. "When she gets it going, she's tough to stop."
Nugent finished with 25 points against the Hilltoppers.
Janke also credited Lynner's superior shooting and Feuerhelm and Aly Reuvers' defensive efforts in his team's third win of the season.
"We always say, 'You don't have to be a star to be a star in your role,'" Janke said, "and if we've got a bunch of kids that star in their roles, we're going to be a very good basketball team down the road."
Scoring for the Panthers: Nugent 25; Lynner 17; Earney 9; Swanson 6; Sigler 5; Bach, Feuerhelm 3.
Scoring for the Hilltoppers: Quinn 26; Klinger, Voeltz 13; Fayerweather, Hill and Scalze 2.