Tiera Stephen did all the things she normally does in a basketball game Sunday against Evansville. She assisted, defended, stole passes and rebounded. Just another day at the Kohl Center for Stephen. Then she did something she doesn’t normally do — she scored, and plenty more than she was expected to.
The fifth-year senior notched a career-high 13 points, trumping her previous record of eight as she helped the Badgers (3-2) top the Evansville Purple Aces (2-3) 73-55. For head coach Bobbie Kelsey, Stephen has always been capable of a performance like Sunday’s.
“She showed that she can do a lot out there, especially when she’s locked in,” Kelsey said. “She has that in her — she’s always had that in her — and we were just waiting for her to bring it out. This was a good time to do it.”
But it wasn’t just her scoring that made Stephen a difference-maker for the Badgers. She also chipped in seven assists, five rebounds and a pair of steals while logging a team-high 35 minutes.
Wisconsin needed every one of them as the Aces hung around throughout the contest, trailing by eight just seconds before the halftime break. The Badgers had made just one shot in the previous five minutes before sophomore guard Jacki Gulczynski made her mark.
Gulczynski was just 1 for 4 on the game when she found herself alone at the top of the key. She turned and fired, connecting as the final seconds of the first half ticked away to put the Badgers ahead 39-28. It proved an important turn of momentum for Wisconsin as the home team quickly extended its lead to 17 early in the second half.
“Going into the half with that momentum and energy is always a positive,” senior captain Taylor Wurtz said. “That definitely helped us when Jacki stepped up and hit a good shot. … It was a good look.”
And the assist on that play came from none other than Stephen. It wasn’t the across-the-board stat line that that the guard considered her best asset on the floor, however. An underlying characteristic is what she thinks helps her most as a point guard.
“I think my biggest priority for this team is just my energy,” Stephen said. “I feel like if I have high energy, the team wouldn’t necessarily follow, but it’s contagious. I feel if I lead the team and bring high energy, the rest will come.”
And her teammates sure helped her out. Junior Morgan Paige led a quiet 19-point performance, with 15 points in the first half alone. Wurtz tacked on 11 while 6-foot-4 forward Cassie Rochel ended her day just three points and one rebound shy of a double-double.
Senior forward Samantha Heck paced Evansville as she tallied a career-high 25 points in 39 minutes on the floor. Meagan Collins and Khristian Hart added 13 and 12, respectively, for the visiting Aces.
Wisconsin’s victory came at the end of a holiday weekend that began with a 22-turnover loss to Washington Wednesday. The Badgers were averaging more than 21 turnovers in the last three games with UW winning just one of those games.
Wisconsin rebounded from that effort Sunday, registering just 12 turnovers and forcing Evansville into 16, eventually winning the points off turnovers battle 19-7.
“You never want to give the other team the opportunity to get an easy basket,” Kelsey said. “I’m trying to stress to them that over-dribbling, if that’s the first thing you do when you catch it, you’re going to turn it over. Especially with Virginia Tech coming up, they have a lot of kids that pressure.”
That’s where, once again, Stephen comes in, with freshman point guard Dakota Whyte aiding her efforts. The two guards combined for just three turnovers, cutting their total from the Washington game in half. Kelsey, however, said she thinks the Badgers turned around their turnover woes by getting everyone involved.
“It starts with Tiera, and Nicole will play a little bit up there, but everybody has to be ready to handle the ball,” Kelsey said.
It was a team effort in the end. Paige led the Badgers in scoring, Gulczynski provided the momentum and Wurtz continued to approach the 1,000-point career scoring mark, but Stephen was the focal point throughout, a position she has rarely been in since transferring to Wisconsin.
But having the senior guard in the spotlight was something her teammates certainly enjoyed.
“I’m happy for T (Tiera); I know she can score the ball as well,” Wurtz said. “It’s good to see another dynamic of her play.”