Coming off its first win of the season at home Sunday against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team is headed to the Northwest for its first road trip of the season.
Wisconsin (1-0) will square off with the Gonzaga Bulldogs (2-0) Friday night in Spokane, Wash., and then make the trek of a mere 76 miles south to Pullman, Wash., for its game Sunday afternoon against the Washington State Cougars (0-2).
Even though it is very early in Wisconsin’s season, junior guard Morgan Paige and the rest of the Badgers realize the importance of the two upcoming road tests.
“It’s going to be a trip. … These are going to be two big games for us,” Paige said. “I feel like if we can get these we’ll get moving in the right direction for the season, but they’re going to be really competitive, and they’re going to be good games.”
Between the two games, the game Friday against Gonzaga could prove to be the tougher of the two simply because of the reputation the Bulldogs have built in the West Coast Conference over the last several seasons. Gonzaga has won the conference title eight years in a row under the direction of head coach Kelly Graves, and it has accumulated only nine losses in conference play during that period.
Gonzaga’s domination has not been limited to the WCC, as it has amassed seasons of 25 wins or more six times over the last seven seasons, along with four-straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs’ impressive run as of late, highlighted by two trips to the Sweet Sixteen and one to the Elite Eight over the last three years, has Wisconsin head coach Bobbie Kelsey looking forward to the opportunity of playing a high-quality opponent.
“Gonzaga is a ranked opponent and has been to the NCAA Tournament; the last five or six years in a row they have won their conference, so that would be a good game to win,” Kelsey said. “That would boost our confidence a lot to play a ranked team and a very well-coached team.”
This year’s Gonzaga squad lost its top three point-scorers from last year, but sophomore guard Keani Albanez has stepped up off the bench and leads the Bulldogs in scoring with 17 points per game. If Wisconsin hopes to beat Gonzaga, limiting Albanez and junior guard Haiden Palmer (13.5 points per game) will be critical.
The game against Washington State Sunday is a rematch of last year’s game, in which the Cougars emerged victorious 69-51. Despite having its fair share of difficult seasons in the past and starting off this year winless, WSU is by no measure a sure victory for Wisconsin, especially since the Badgers lost to the Cougars last year.
But Wisconsin will be looking to avenge last season’s loss.
“Washington State, they beat us last year, so you want to get some payback there and prove that, ‘Hey, we’re just as good,’” Kelsey said. “We may not have played as well last year, but this is a different year with different players.”
Although WSU has lost its first two games, it has not gone down without a fight in either game, as it took South Dakota State to overtime and Minnesota to double overtime before losing both games. The key to the Cougars’ success, at least at this point in the season, is freshman guard Lia Galdeira, who tallied a freshman record 33 points in the loss to Minnesota.
Just like the game against Gonzaga, Wisconsin will have to contain lethal scorers, especially Galdeira, to give itself a chance to win against WSU.
As for the lineup for the Badgers for both games, taking into mind that basketball is a game of momentum and runs, Kelsey said does not have anything set in stone and plans to continue to utilize players whenever and wherever she may need them.
“Games are what you need at that moment. You can have a plan but that doesn’t always work out. It’s who’s hot, who’s not, who can guard the other players, who’s smart enough to make the decisions [on the court],” Kelsey said. “We have a lot of people that can play in a lot of different combos; we just look to maximize who’s doing well out there at that time.”
If Kelsey can manage the rotation of players as effectively as she did against UW-Milwaukee – a game in which 11 players saw action and four scored in double figures – Wisconsin will put itself in solid position to win both games.
Clearly, the biggest question coming into the game is Wisconsin’s identity for a young team early in the season, and these two road games should do a lot to answer that question.
“It’s really going to show if everyone is ready to go, where we are standing in regards to where we need to improve in areas,” Paige said. “… As soon as you get away from the Kohl Center, it’s a whole different ball game. It will be interesting to see how the new ones do.”