When the Wisconsin-Milwaukee women’s basketball team was in Fargo, North Dakota, to open the season against North Dakota State, Kelsey Cunningham was in the starting lineup for her collegiate debut.

After coming off the bench the next 22 games, Cunningham was back in the lineup for the Panthers’ most recent game Thursday, a 79-73 loss to Youngstown State.

“She’s been working hard in practice, which has made her earn the spot more than anything,” Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Kyle Rechlicz said of the freshman from Columbus North.

“We felt like we needed a few more competitive guards on the floor. She uses her hands pretty well and gets some tips on a lot of balls.”

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The 5-foot-9 Cunningham has played three guard positions for the Panthers, who sometimes employ a four-guard lineup.

“At the beginning of the season, I thought I was more of a point guard, but since I’ve been playing the 2 or 3 guard, I’ve gotten more used to that,” Cunningham said.

“That’s one of the advantages that Kelsey has,” Rechlicz said. “She has the handles to be the 1 (point guard), she has the ability to shoot from outside and has the ability to take the ball to the hole. When I’m looking down the bench, she makes herself valuable to play any of those positions.”

Although Cunningham is shooting only 24.7 percent from the field, including 21.4 percent from 3-point range, she leads the team with 85.7 percent free-throw shooting. She is averaging 2.3 points and 1.8 rebounds per game.

Cunningham did enjoy a couple of breakout games when she scored a career-high 11 points in a Jan. 31 loss at Youngstown State and had 10 points and eight rebounds in a Feb. 6 win against Oakland.

“The seniors really helped out with that,” Cunningham said. “They gave me a talk because confidence is one of the things I’ve been trying to work on. Now, I feel better than ever.”

Rechlicz said Cunningham may not be in the starting lineup for Wednesday’s game at a bigger Illinois-Chicago team but could start Saturday against Cleveland State.

“It’s cool, but I was getting used to being a spark off the bench,” Cunningham said. “I like getting to watch how the flow of the game is before you get put into it.”

Rechlicz, who played high school basketball at North Central and AAU ball for Columbus North coach Pat McKee in the mid-1990s, knew she was getting a good player in Cunningham.

“I think when Kelsey first started, she had the work-ethic to be a Division I player, which I think was instilled by her high school coach, Pat McKee,” Rechlicz said. “But it takes time to adjust to the pace of the college level.

“She puts a lot of time in, and we’ve seen her excel at getting to the rim and finishing offensively, and she’s playing much more disciplined on defense and has really started to control ball-handlers on the court,” she said. “I think she’s taken a huge step.”

Cunningham’s favorite part of the season came in that win against Oakland. Oakland had just beaten Wisconsin-Green Bay, which was leading the Horizon League.

“That showed we could play with any team in our conference,” Cunningham said. “It was just a fun game to be in.”

Wisconsin-Milwaukee is 8-16, including 4-8 in the Horizon, with four games left in the regular season. The Horizon League Tournament is March 9 through 15.

“Our next four conference games, we can definitely win, and that’s our goal,” Cunningham said.

“We want to get out of the middle pack of the conference teams and be fourth or fifth and get a good seed in our tournament.”

The Cunningham file

Name: Kelsey Cunningham

High school: Columbus North

College: Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Year: Freshman

Height: 5-foot-9

Position: Guard

Major: Nursing

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.