Major finds lead way for Green Bay

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Kevin Borseth looked uncomfortable with the question, a coach whose teams rarely lost on the court caught in what he assessed as a no-win situation in the minutes after another victory.

Despite a rough shooting night that saw his Phoenix miss all but one of 19 attempts from the 3-point line, Green Bay beat Wisconsin 53-43. It was Green Bay's fifth win this season against a foe from the ACC, Big East, Big Ten or Pac-12. That's two fewer such wins than the combined total against major conferences of the six teams ranked Nos. 20-25 in last week's AP Top 25.

It was the fifth win in the last six seasons against Wisconsin, a series that stands 8-5 in Green Bay's favor this century.

So it seemed a fair question. Separated by a little more than 100 miles, after all, the two schools form the points connecting the hypotenuse of a right triangle that has the population center of Milwaukee as its 90 degree angle. One of those points has Big Ten money. The other has the smallest athletic budget in the Horizon League.

How often did his program and the University of Wisconsin go head-to-head on recruits?

"I don't know that we're really in that arena for the most part," Borseth eventually allowed. "We lose a lot of kids to bigger schools, not just Wisconsin but other schools equally, as well."

And yet the Phoenix rarely lose to those teams on the court. Especially against the Badgers.

"Players like Megan Lukan come around once in a lifetime. I mean, I'll cry when she leaves. She's a special kid." Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth

Saturday's game in front of a nearly full house at the Kress Center was not Green Bay at its best, which makes a win over a Big Ten opponent notable in its own right. The team's most recognizable scorers -- Tesha Buck, Mehryn Kraker and Kaili Lukan -- combined for six fields goals and 11 personal fouls. More often the facilitator, it was left to fifth-year senior Megan Lukan to do much of the finishing. She responded with a game-high 17 points, most of them on drives to the basket and free throws, as well as four rebounds, three assists and a steal.

It was a more statistically measurable example of the role she always plays for a team with nine players in their first or second season on the court. Down by eight points early, Green Bay followed Megan Lukan's lead all the way back.

"She's got such a sense of urgency when she plays that the other players just kind of respect that," Borseth said. "She commands attention just by the way she does things. She just sells the farm on every play.

"Players like Megan Lukan come around once in a lifetime. I mean, I'll cry when she leaves. She's a special kid."

Yet when Lukan was a high school player in Ontario, it was her National Elite Development Academy teammate Karly Roser who drew attention from Big Ten schools. When it was younger sister Kaili's turn to look southward for college, it was again a NEDA teammate, Dakota Whyte, whom the big schools wanted. Roser chose Northwestern, and Whyte chose Wisconsin, and both have enjoyed success at those schools (Whyte's penetration off the dribble nearly keyed a Wisconsin comeback Saturday night). But in both cases, Michigan was also one of the power programs in the mix for Roser and Whyte.

Its coach, too, didn't recruit the Lukans. That coach? Borseth, who now benefits from what Matt Bollant, the coach who briefly replaced him in Green Bay, saw in the sisters (just as Bollant's Sweet 16 team was led by Borseth recruits from his first tenure).

Even the coach who, along with Marist's Brian Giorgis, South Dakota State's Aaron Johnston and a handful of others, makes a career out of taking the players bigger programs didn't want and beating those same programs didn't see it. Even the guy who will cry when the elder Lukan plays her final game this spring missed it. Maybe she wasn't tall enough for the Big Ten. Maybe her shot wasn't quite pure enough. Maybe the first step didn't take your breath away.

Well, in three-plus seasons in which she has been a starter in almost every game, Green Bay is 90-17.

"She's not very tall, but she plays taller than what she is," Wisconsin coach Bobbie Kelsey said. "She plays like a big kid out there. She's scrappy, she's confident, she believes -- she plays that way. All of them do, really."

If she wasn't so, well, pleasantly Canadian, it would have seemed as though Lukan was gilding the lily when, during a stoppage in play in the second half of a tight rivalry game, she jogged over, grabbed a mop from an overwhelmed ball girl and took care of some sweat or other condensation on the court. That bit of housekeeping done, she brought the ball up the court, rubbed off the shoulder of a pick from teammate Jessica Lindstrom and finished a layup in traffic.

"She's just totally in tune with everything that's going on on the court," Borseth said. "I think it goes without saying that as a person, she's the same way."

In addition to mopping the court, leading the team in scoring and answering questions in the news conference, Saturday was Lukan's turn to sign autographs for fans. So an hour after the game ended, still in the uniform she wore for 37 minutes on the court, she stood and signed for a line of kids that, at one point, stretched more than 40 deep.

Not so long ago, word got back to Lukan through a friend of a friend that a local girl, Bella, who first met the player at a basketball camp, remained the most loyal of fans, excited by every Lukan sighting the same way most people in this part of Wisconsin would be to spot Aaron Rodgers or Jordy Nelson. So when Lukan returned from summer vacation this year, she called up the family and asked if it would be all right if she spent the day with Bella. The school didn't set it up. The coaches didn't arrange it. She just did it and spent the day painting nails and jumping on the trampoline.

Is that the part Big Ten programs weren't sure could help them?

"I like showing up to practice every day," Lukan said. "To be honest, the other day I went to [senior Ellen Edison] and I was like, 'Ellen, I think I've laughed more this year in this span of practice, and it's only the first beginning of it, more than I have all my other four years combined.' That's because of coach, that's because of all my teammates and it's just a fun atmosphere."

If you think that doesn't help win games, you're crazy. If you think it isn't a sign of a culture to see all four teammates on the court run to help up a fallen teammate, just like you see in any Connecticut game, you're missing something.

But, of course, what goes on between the whistles matters at least as much. As is often the case, even against a Wisconsin team that hadn't been very good on the boards, Green Bay finished the game with fewer rebounds than its opponent. It also finished with 11 more field goal attempts and four more free throw attempts.

Green Bay makes as much as it can out of every possession and values the ball accordingly. Wisconsin didn't on this night.

"We had 25 turnovers," Kelsey seethed. "I mean, our turnovers are ridiculous. I don't know what people are doing out there. Everybody is kind of doing their own thing. [The turnovers are] unforced. I mean, what are you seeing? Who are you throwing it to? You've got to deliver the ball."

It isn't a one-game thing. Green Bay ranks 21st in the nation in turnover margin despite a brutal schedule. Not since the 1996-97 season did a Green Bay team finish a season with more turnovers than its opponents. The Phoenix had 11 turnovers Saturday.

"Ball security is really a lot for us," Borseth said. "In some regards, we're not fun to watch sometimes because we're not flippant with the ball and just throwing it away. ... It's one thing that's non-negotiable for me, throwing the ball away. It really is. There's a method to teach it. I think your passing has got to be away from the defense, I think your kids have to time their cuts, I think your spacing has to be perfect. A lot of its got to do with team play."

There are limitations on how high the Phoenix can fly. As seen earlier this season, this isn't a team that is going to beat a national contender like Connecticut. But you know who else isn't coming within 20 points of Connecticut? Most of the Big Ten. And a good chunk of the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, for that matter.

As the polls and NCAA tournament at-large selections make clear week after week and year after year, those teams get the benefit of the doubt because of what Baylor, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Stanford or Tennessee accomplish.

Green Bay doesn't have that luxury.

"It's about us," Borseth said in talking about the example Lukan sets. "It's about her, it's about all the players. It's not about who you're playing. And the key is to go out and do everything you can in your power to be the best you possibly can every single play and then let the chips fall where they may. The other kids feed off that."

So back to the original question. Do the two programs that played Saturday night exist in different worlds?

"We can go after some kids they can't," Kelsey said, "And maybe they see some kids that fit what they're doing. We're still trying to identify those who can play for us."

This isn't a knock on Kelsey or Wisconsin. The Badgers just happens to be the unlucky neighbor.

But maybe a lot of schools should think about why Green Bay keeps winning with what it's doing.