Wisconsin’s 62-59 loss to Illinois State Sunday mirrored many of the Badgers’ games this season – a hard-fought battle with several missed opportunities for UW to take control.
As senior guard Alyssa Karel’s three-point attempt came up short with three seconds remaining, the Wisconsin women’s basketball season (16-15) came to a close with yet another heartbreaking loss in the second round of the WNIT Tournament. In a game with nine lead changes, the Badgers were simply unable to finish strong.
Missed free throws, often just as Wisconsin was building momentum, seemed to hurt the Badgers more than anything else. UW was just 11-of-19 from the foul line, and Morgan Paige’s missed free throw to tie the game with seven seconds left showed the importance of free throw shooting in this matchup.
“We put them at the line too early in the second half, and when we went there we didn’t capitalize,” head coach Lisa Stone said. “And it was all of us, it wasn’t anybody in particular. I told Morgan Paige, because she was really upset, the game doesn’t come down to her free throw.”
With a one-point advantage at halftime in a back-and-forth first half, Illinois State was able to quickly answer any consistent scoring from the Badgers. UW never led by more than six and found itself chasing a Redbirds (22-10) lead for much of the contest.
Despite playing from behind for much of the game, Wisconsin showed resiliency, down by seven with just more than two minutes left. With two steals in the final two minutes, it appeared that the Badgers might be able to pull off an impressive comeback. But Wisconsin came up just short.
“I think Alyssa put it best … that we just haven’t caught a break,” Stone said. “We’re a shot away against Michigan State, we’re a shot away against Michigan from a conference championship and a No. 2 seed [in the Big Ten Tournament] and then we’re a No. 6 seed.”
A senior may have missed a potential buzzer-beater, but without the play of Karel and senior forward Lin Zastrow, Wisconsin likely would not have made the late surge. Leading all scorers with 24 points, Karel had 10 in the final three minutes that kept the Redbirds from pulling away late.
Zastrow finished with 18 points and six rebounds and allowed UW to jump out to a lead early in the second half by scoring the Badgers’ first six points after the break.
“In the first half, they were doubling me a little bit, so that threw me off, I think,” Zastrow said. “In the second half … I knew I had to take it at them and just come out a little bit more aggressive.”
Wisconsin jumped out to an 8-2 lead early, but the Badgers could not stop Illinois State from coming back. Receiving several crucial second-chance opportunities off offensive rebounds, the Badgers simply gave Illinois State too many chances to take back the lead. An undersized team, the Redbirds were still able to collect three more rebounds than Wisconsin, a key to their victory.
With both teams shooting near 40 percent from the field and close to 30 percent from three-point range, the game ultimately came down to free-throws and timely scoring.
“I’m glad there was no more time left; I’m glad the clock ran out when it did because we were definitely starting to get a little tight,” Illinois State head coach Stephanie Glance said. “We are kind of inexperienced in that situation, so for us to actually be able to hang on and to pull out the win, that’s big for us.”
This game marked the end of Wisconsin’s run in the WNIT Tournament and marked the end of the careers of Wisconsin’s four seniors in Karel, Zastrow, Tara Steinbauer and Emily Neal. Seniors were the foundation of this Badgers’ squad throughout the season, and this game brought an emotional end to their careers.
“It’s been such a great experience here, and I’ve been so thankful for the experience that Coach and this university [have] given me,” Karel said. “I think once the tears stop, I’ll just kind of look back and all I can do is really smile.”
As Wisconsin starts to look forward to next season, both coaches and teammates realize that the seniors will be nearly impossible to replace.
“These are two of the finest players that will ever wear a Wisconsin uniform, there’s no doubt about it,” Stone said of Karel and Zastrow. “Impact, unbelievable impact, leadership, character people, going to go on to be very, very successful.”