Although its matchup with Northwestern Wildcats at the Kohl Center Thursday might not gain the attention that head coach Lisa Stone’s 500th career win did, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team realizes this is still a critical game.
After dominating Indiana Sunday in a 75-49 victory, the Badgers (13-10, 8-3 Big Ten) have regained their confidence in conference play. Currently sitting at third in the Big Ten, every game is a must-win for Wisconsin at this point in the season.
“Whenever you can go to Indiana, a great and a very hard place to play — I’ve only won there now; that was my second time,” senior forward Lin Zastrow said. “… So just winning and then by doing it, holding them to less than 50 like we wanted to do, that gave us a lot of confidence, and hopefully we use that into this game and the rest of the season.”
UW will be going for its second win of the season over the Wildcats (16-8, 5-6), who they last played on Jan. 30, and are hoping things go as well in this matchup as they did in the first game. In that meeting, a 62-50 Badger win in Evanston, the Badgers turned the ball over just 12 times and limited Northwestern star Amy Jaeschke to 10 points.
However, the Wildcats have won two games in a row, including an upset on the road over Ohio State, and will not be easy to take down in Madison.
“The way we’re playing right now, we’re playing well, and our kids are confident. There’s no question, beating [Northwestern] once helps,” assistant coach Ty Margenthaler said. “That’s not going to guarantee a victory by no means, we’ve got to play hard, and we’ve got to be smart. They’re going to know us really well; we know them really well.”
Northwestern’s unquestioned leader on the offensive side is Jaeschke, who leads the Big Ten with 22.3 points per game. The senior center also leads the team with nine rebounds per game, and UW will have a hard time keeping her well below her scoring average again.
The offense may start with Jaeschke, but three other players in Beth Marshall, Kendall Hackney and Brittany Orban all average double figures for the Wildcats and complete a well-rounded offense.
“They’ve got a whole host of great players,” senior forward Tara Steinbauer said. “They’re not one-dimensional; they’re not only about Amy Jaeschke, but a lot of their offense flows through her. But, she’s got the ability to pass and find the open person, so that’s what makes them so dangerous.”
Wisconsin has relied on its success inside since the start of Big Ten play, and the outcome of this game could once again depend on the play of the senior duo of Steinbauer and Zastrow.
In the first matchup, Zastrow anchored the Badgers with 17 points and has been on a roll ever since. The forward currently leads the Big Ten in shooting percentage at 55 percent, and high percentage shots from Zastrow and Steinbauer will probably be a key to another conference win for the Badgers.
“We got to do what we do well and go to our kids that are our strengths, which is going to be Alyssa [Karel] and Lin,” Margenthaler said. “We want them to make touches, and we’re just going to have to be really sharp. The biggest thing is rebounding. Lack of turnovers and rebounding is going to be huge.”
Although UW has plenty of crucial games ahead — including tough matchups with Iowa and Ohio State in the final stretch — the Badgers understand that they can’t overlook a team that has had trouble in the Big Ten like Northwestern.
With NCAA Tournament hopes on the line, the Badgers, and in particular the group of seniors that have been central to Wisconsin’s success this year, understand that they must play their best basketball if they hope to end their careers on a high note.
“It’s kind of the mentality that this is our last few weeks of collegiate sports, and why not make the most of it and go out with a bang,” Steinbauer said. “But, at the same time, obviously just trying to do my best to help the team get the successes that they want.”