The Wisconsin women’s basketball team (10-9, 5-2) will try to keep things rolling Sunday when it faces off with Illinois (7-12, 2-4) in the friendly confines of the Kohl Center.
After a crucial road victory over the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the Badgers will have a chance to reaffirm their defensive identity against the Fighting Illini, as they average nearly 65 points per game. With an attacking style of play and emphasis on getting to the basket, Illinois’ offense should be a true defensive test for Wisconsin.
With its first and only matchup of the year against Illinois, Wisconsin will have to slow down a team that shoots 40.7 percent from the field and still outrebounds Wisconsin by an average of five rebounds per game.
“Illinois is a up-tempo team, they’re aggressive,” assistant coach Oties Epps said. “They’re going to try to force us to play a particular way, and we’ve got to control tempo. We talk about controlling tempo and taking care of the ball, and those are things that we’re really going to have to be good at Sunday night.”
Despite its defensive struggles earlier in the year, Wisconsin has lived up to its defense-first mentality in the conference season. Currently sitting at third in the conference in scoring defense, third in rebounding defense and fourth in field goal percentage defense, UW has proven that it does not give up easy baskets.
In a conference known for its physical play, Wisconsin will need to put together an impressive defensive performance to take down Illinois.
“Obviously, defense is always huge for us,” senior forward Tara Steinbauer said. “We’re one of the top teams in the conference right now, and I think we didn’t do as good of a job against Michigan as we could have with sticking to our defensive principles. Illinois definitely wants to drive, so we got to contest shots but make sure we’re definitely guarding the yard.”
Illinois is anchored on both sides of the ball by sophomore forward Karisma Penn, who averages just over 16 points and 10 rebounds per game. With 47 blocks on the year, Penn presents a formidable challenge on the defensive end of the ball as well.
Along with Penn, the Badgers will have to find a way to contain redshirt freshman guard Amber Moore and junior guard Lydia McCully, the second and third leading scorers of the team, respectively. Facing an athletic team that contains a variety of scoring threats, Wisconsin is dealing with a different type of team than those it has played recently.
“In Minnesota and in Michigan, we’ve seen a lot of teams that can really step back and shoot threes,” Steinbauer said. “But in Illinois, it’s a little bit of a different game, so I think definitely just packing in the paint and making sure we stop the drive [are important].”
Although the Illini present a style of play different from recent opponents, the Badgers continue to rely on the valuable experience they gained in the non-conference season as they prepare for Big Ten squads.
UW’s record may have taken a hit in games outside of Big Ten competition, but the wide variety of systems the team was exposed to could be the key to finishing strong in conference play. In Illinois, Wisconsin already sees several similarities to the teams it faced earlier this year.
“Just from an athletic standpoint, I would look at a team like a Duke or Oklahoma State, Marquette, teams of that nature that we’ve played in the non-conference,” Epps said. “[The Illinois game] is going to be very similar to those opponents.”
The matchup with the Fighting Illini also provides an opportunity for the Badgers to defend their home court, something that could be a deciding factor in where they end up at the end of this year. Undefeated in the Kohl Center since the conference season began, the team cannot afford a home loss this late in the year.
Starting this weekend, over half of UW’s final nine games will take place at home. If they can take down the Illini Sunday and keep the winning streak going, the Badgers could find themselves in serious contention for a Big Ten crown.
“Coach Stone says all the time ‘leave no doubt at home,’” senior forward Lin Zastrow said. “It should feel comfortable, and we have to leave no doubt and just bring a lot of energy and feed off the crowd and the home atmosphere.”