The outlook wasn’t great as the Badgers took the floor Thursday night at the Kohl Center against the nation’s seventh-ranked team. Wisconsin entered the game losing seven of their last eight games and Penn State was riding an 11-game winning streak. The last time these teams met, Wisconsin came home from State College, P. with a sorrowful 84-40 defeat.
With snowy conditions limiting the crowd to just more than 3,600, the usually raucous Kohl Center crowd was rather tranquil. The Badgers’ upset chances seemed slim. That didn’t stop the cardinal and white, though.
The team that had garnered just one win in the Big Ten season played like they were in the shoes of their opponent, the Lady Lions who owned a league-leading 7-0 record in conference play. A truly back-and-forth game found the Badgers in position for their biggest victory of the season and likely head coach Bobbie Kelsey’s career.
Position proved to be all they needed, too. As Cassie Rochel’s baseline shot sailed over the iron, point guard Tiera Stephen found herself in position for the game winning put-back layup with just five seconds remaining. A final missed layup by Penn State made the outcome official. Wisconsin had won 63-61.
It was the first time in more than four years that the Badgers had beaten a top-10 team, and as nearly all upsets go, the road to victory was far from easy for Wisconsin.
Badgers handle each Lady Lion run
Wisconsin’s got off to a quick start Thursday night via the three-pointer as Jacki Gulczynski and Morgan Paige each drilled a pair of triples in the game’s first 10 minutes. Augmented by 10 Penn State turnovers in the first 15 minutes, Wisconsin was leading 29-20 with less than five minutes to go in the opening frame.
As all good teams seem to do, Penn State finally seemed to realize late in the half that they were in Madison for a basketball game. The Lady Lions forced the Badgers into six turnovers on their next eight possessions en route to a 13-0 run to end the first half.
“We started getting careless and not getting into our offense,” Paige said. “We had a couple of turnovers that led to wide open layups, and with a team that is this talented, you can’t let that happen.”
Any momentum that Wisconsin had built before the break was wiped clean as the No. 7 team in the country seemed primed to take control in the second half.
But the Badgers were resilient, and kept Penn State within reach, handling each four- or five-point run with a few buckets of their own.
Penn State extended their lead to 43-36, but Wisconsin answered to make it 43-40. Penn State extended their lead to 47-41, but Wisconsin answered to make it 47-45. Soon enough the Lady Lions were all out of runs and the Badgers train had just started chugging.
“We don’t always answer with a run — that’s kind of been our problem — but tonight we did,” Kelsey said. “It says a lot about these kids that if you continue to work and continue to press, you will break through.”
Rebounding a different story
The tables had certainly turned from that 44-point drubbing witnessed in Pennsylvania. One of the main differences from game-to-game was the rebounding disparity.
The Jan. 17 battle on the Penn State campus saw the Badgers (31) grab 24 fewer rebounds than the Lady Lions (55). On Thursday night, the differential ended in much different fashion. Wisconsin may have grabbed fewer rebounds (29), but they held Penn State to just 31 boards.
With a pair of forwards in Mia Nickson and Nikki Green that stretch to 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-4, respectively, team rebounding was certainly a point of focus.
“We can’t grow eight inches in a week,” Kelsey said of the size discrepancy on the floor.
But the Badgers held each of the Lady Lions’ forwards to just six rebounds. Wisconsin’s 5-foot-7 point guard nearly matched the Penn State pair herself, as Stephen grabbed a game-high 11 boards.
“Rebounding for us is about heart,” Stephen said, citing that many times the point guard doesn’t crash the glass, leading to some surprising looks.
Through the career-high 33 points from Morgan Paige and the 10 missed free throws by Wisconsin, rebounding took a back seat. That was until the final minute of the game, where the last rebound found Stephen shooting the easiest shot in basketball.
“I just said ‘go in, put it in,’” Kelsey said as she watched Stephen shoot the game winning layup.
Rest assured, she did.