After losing five straight games, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team (2-5) will have the challenging task of breaking the streak against the undefeated No. 5 Duke Blue Devils Thursday at the Kohl Center.
A matchup that is part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Duke is the most talented squad UW has faced this year. Returning three starters from a team that reached the Elite Eight last season, the Blue Devils will certainly be favored to take down the Badgers at home.
Despite these recent struggles, however, the UW women’s basketball team is keeping an optimistic outlook heading into the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
“It’s so easy to get down on yourselves when you’ve lost five games in a row, especially knowing that there were games in that stretch that we should have won, we could have won,” senior forward Tara Steinbauer said. “I think staying confident and being positive and, you know, taking each of these losses as a learning opportunity.”
Although the season has not gone quite as planned for Wisconsin following a promising 2-0 start, a strong performance against Duke could mark a turning point for the team. As the men’s basketball team showed last year, being an underdog against Duke gives the Badgers a chance to make a major statement for their program.
However, keeping up with the ACC squad will be no easy task, as they have averaged 17 more points per game this season than Wisconsin. Led by senior guards Jasmine Thomas and Karima Christmas, who both average more than 10 points per game, the Blue Devils offer an experienced lineup of guards that are the foundation of their offense.
“[Duke’s] backcourt is exceptional,” assistant coach Oties Epps said. “They have a lot of speed, athleticism, and explosiveness in the backcourt. We haven’t faced a backcourt as talented as Duke’s backcourt, so it will be a good measuring stick for us.”
Duke is strong at every position on the floor, but Wisconsin will try to protect the lane and force them to feed the ball inside, the idea being to limit the scoring of their prolific guards.
The Blue Devils also present a faster paced offense than the Badgers are used to facing, but UW is sticking to its usual strategy going into the game. A team that always focuses on the fundamentals and defense, Wisconsin will continue to focus on those aspects of the game against the top-five team.
“We have to take care of the ball always and rebound. We’ve gotten out-rebounded the past couple games, and we can really focus on that,” freshman guard Morgan Paige said. “Turnovers, making the turnovers last and making sure you come out with the hustle plays — that’s what’s going to put us on top in this game.”
Part of what makes Duke such a strong team is that they play well on both ends of the floor, holding opponents to 20 points less per game than they score. Shooting 43 percent from the field and 36 percent from behind the arc, their offense will present a formidable challenge for the Badgers.
On the defensive end, the Blue Devils average 12 steals per game and 10 more rebounds per game than Wisconsin, a sign of just how well rounded they are as a team.
“No doubt Duke is going to be tough,” Steinbauer said. “We’re going to have to play the best basketball you’ve seen us play all year. Their big, their physical … I definitely think our defense is going to have to be at a premium, but I know that we’re up for the challenge.”
One of their most anticipated non-conference games of the year and their last home game before a two-game road stretch, a win over the Blue Devils would give the team great momentum in getting their season back on track. If the Badgers can come away with a win it would be a big step forward for both the Wisconsin women’s basketball program and the Big Ten.
“We’re hoping to make a statement, not only for the Big Ten but just for our program,” Epps said. “In this matchup, we have a great opportunity, and we’re extremely blessed to have the opportunity to play Duke here on our home floor.
“We’re going to try to take advantage of it.”