Although it was Senior Day at the Kohl Center Sunday, sophomore Morgan Paige and junior Taylor Wurtz stole the show as the duo carried the Badgers’ offense in route to a 72-60 win over the Fighting Illini of Illinois.
Wisconsin headed into the locker room at halftime down by five, but just minutes into the second half Paige and Wurtz fueled a second half turnaround that halted a six-game losing streak. Due in large part to the play of the two guards, UW finished the game shooting 52 percent from the floor – their second-best shooting performance of the season – including a red-hot 64 percent in the last 20 minutes.
Besting her former career-high by nine points, Paige finished with 29 points on an 8-of-14 shooting night that revitalized both the Kohl Center crowd and the Badgers’ offense. Wurtz coupled that performance with a 21-point, 12-rebound game that left her with her sixth double-double of the year and her second in a row.
Although the duo combined for close to 70 percent of the team’s points, Wurtz credited her teammates for opening up good scoring opportunities.
“I feel like [Morgan] stepped up huge and the defense sort of shifted towards her, so I got some open looks in the second half,” Wurtz said. “The seniors have held this team together and they mean the world to us, so we definitely wanted to go out there and play as hard as we can and leave it all on the floor for them.”
Attacking the rim and battling her way through the lane, Paige set a team record by sinking all 11 of her attempts from the charity stripe. For a Wisconsin team that has often struggled to score inside this season, the underclassman’s aggressiveness throughout the game allowed the Badgers to finish with 28 points in the paint.
Paige, who finished 2-of-5 from beyond the arc, went on a tear just beyond the halfway point in the final 20 minutes that included seven straight points in less than two minutes.
“The high pressure defense really does allow you to get that drive to the lane, so as soon as the first time that it happened I started to see the same tendencies in the defender,” Paige said. “I had that open for the majority of the game so I took advantage of it.
“As we were moving the ball as a team, lanes got bigger and there was more opportunity to drive. Once you get that first step, you just have to be able to finish through contact.”
Not as surprising but equally important were the 17 second half points from Wurtz. Despite struggling in the first half with just four points on 2-of-8 shooting from the floor and missing all four of her 3-point attempts, UW’s leading scorer made sure her senior teammates left the Kohl Center floor for the final time with a victory.
Unlike Paige, Wurtz earned most of her points outside the paint, hitting tough fadeaway jumpers and finding somewhat of a rhythm from 3-point range to allow the Badgers to pull away late from the Fighting Illini.
Fittingly, the junior guard converted her first three-pointer at the 16:26 mark to tie up the game for the first time and hand the momentum over to the Badgers since the game’s opening minutes.
“My teammates stepped up so huge tonight; it was crazy,” senior forward Anya Covington said. “Taylor and Morgan’s play, I mean everybody who stepped on the court brought so much energy. It was just a blessing to be a part of.”
As the three seniors – Covington, Ashley Thomas and Jade Davis – each came off the floor in the game’s closing minutes and embraced their coaches with wide smiles, they had their younger prot?g?s to thank.
It may not have been a career day for any of the seniors, but for head coach Bobbie Kelsey, the biggest take away was that other players stepped up and had the fast-paced offense operating as drawn up in a much-needed win.
“We’ve been in a drought here, and we haven’t seen the output that we know we’re capable of and that we’ve shown in the past,” Kelsey said. “When you’re trying to teach them how to sustain and have a level of intensity, sometimes something goes to the wayside. … We took care of the ball and we scored, that’s a nice combination.”