Lately, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team has gone only as far as junior guard Morgan Paige could take them, like when Paige dropped 33 points in the Badgers’ stunning 63-61 upset of then-No. 7 Penn State Thursday night.
The case was no different Sunday afternoon, only the distance Paige carried Wisconsin (10-12, 2-7) wasn’t enough as Illinois (13-8, 6-3) won 64-56.
At the outset, however, Paige looked durable enough for the task. On 6-of-11 shooting in the first half, Paige didn’t skip a beat from her Thursday performance against the Lady Lions. With 18 of her team’s 31 points at the break, Paige quickly caught the eye of her opponent’s highest rank.
“Obviously, we didn’t do a very good job in the first half,” Illinois head coach Matt Bollant said. “18-of-31 was not the ratio we were looking for.”
Although it took until halftime, Bollant found what he was looking for early in the second half.
After experimenting with a 2-1-2 zone in the latter half of the first period, the Illini went back to the disruptive trapping set in the second frame, extending the defense full-court.
Many times the Badgers needed an array of guards just to help cross the ball over half-court against the Illini defense. When they did cross the time line, they were often trapped into the four corners of the offensive side.
Although Wisconsin head coach Bobbie Kelsey didn’t think the trapping defense affected the Badgers’ offense greatly, Wisconsin was forced into 27 turnovers on the game, 19 of them coming on Illini steals.
“We’ve been one of the best in the Big Ten and one of the better teams in the country [at forcing steals],” Bollant said of his defense, which entered the game averaging 12.7 steals per game. “For us to get more than our average was huge, especially in a game where there’s not quite as many possessions because it was played at a little slower pace.”
The Illini certainly slowed the pace Paige was on. The junior guard failed to convert a field goal in the second half, finishing the game 6-for-14, notching just five points in the second period, all on free throws.
Although Paige’s offense stalled, her team remained in the game due to some timely production from point guard Tiera Stephen. Stephen scored a career-high 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 10 of them coming in the second half.
Wisconsin trailed by just three points with 10 minutes remaining after a pair of free throws by Paige, but the Badgers needed more than just Stephen and Paige to hang with Illinois. The Illini defense remained in its 2-1-2 set and forced Wisconsin into four consecutive turnovers after the 10-minute mark, extending the Illinois lead to 50-44.
Wisconsin would only make two more buckets the rest of the game.
“We kind of got out of sync a little bit in the second half and we got flustered,” Paige said. “Coach said that we needed to stick together, but I think we disbanded a little bit. That really hurt us in the middle of the second half.”
Wisconsin made the finish interesting by shooting 14-of-16 from the free throw line in the second half, but their 5-for-17 shooting from the field kept their offense from thriving.
Kelsey was notably frustrated following the game saying, “what a difference a couple days makes,” between Thursday’s upset and Sunday’s game. The Badgers’ coach was left looking for more from Paige’s surrounding cast.
“Morgan is not going to shoot 100 percent, so we can’t put all of it on Morgan. Other people have to step up and help us,” Kelsey said. “Tonight, some people were out to lunch.
“They were at the Panera Bread Company eating and not in the gym, paying attention to what we are doing, and that’s what is frustrating, because we don’t have a lot of depth.”
Kelsey has been coaching with little depth since winter break as Taylor Wurtz and AnnMarie Brown were forced to the sidelines for the remainder of 2013 with injuries. Adding in the departure of multiple transfers, Kelsey is leading a squad with just nine active players.
The second-year coach cited a lack of spark from the entire squad held Wisconsin back in their attempt to follow up Thursday’s surprising victory.
“The urgency is not there,” Kelsey said. “We’re trying to get [the team] in the mindset of playing in March … you don’t want a spring break. If you have one, guess what, you ain’t in the tournament … you can tell I’m not happy about our play, because we can do better.”