Although the wins have come few and far in between, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team has always seemed to have one final trump card in their pocket: the Kohl Center.
Entering Sunday’s afternoon game against Indiana, Wisconsin had won 10 games on the season with nine of them coming on their home floor. Following an exhaustive double-overtime loss at Ohio State Thursday, the Badgers were glad to return to their homey confines and a crowd of just more than 4,700 spectators as they topped the Hoosiers 65-53.
The Badgers jolted out to a blazing start shooting more than 52 percent in the first half and extending their halftime lead to 14 points. The second half saw that lead fluctuate up and down, but the result rarely wavered in a ho-hum final 20 minutes.
The smaller facets of the game were far from ho-hum, however.
Whyte effective in first start
Wisconsin was already working with a depleted roster when Tiera Stephen injured her left knee in the Badgers loss to the Buckeyes. Freshman Tessa Cichy filled in for most of Stephen’s minutes against Ohio State, but head coach Bobbie Kelsey’s substitution of choice Sunday was fellow freshman Dakota Whyte.
In her first start for Wisconsin, the Canada native played a near-perfect first half. With her teammates finding her as the outlet after each defensive stop and rebound, Whyte ran the point in an up-tempo style, forcing the issue on an Indiana team that struggled to score in the latter part of the first period.
“[Dakota] doesn’t walk the ball up, that’s not her,” Kelsey said. “Sometimes that gets her in trouble … but I like that about Dakota.
“She is learning to be a point guard and read the situation in front of her. If she has it, push it, I don’t mind that.”
Whyte has learned well. She tallied four assists in the opening half, with two of them coming in back-to-back minutes as Wisconsin extended their lead to 11 at 35-24. It wasn’t until the last minute of the first half that Indiana forced Whyte into her first turnover.
Although Stephen started and played most of the second half for the Badgers, Whyte still saw an increased role from her 11.7-minute average throughout the season. Her 17 minutes were progressive news for a Wisconsin roster that has been working with essentially a 7-player rotation as of late.
Even though she only garnered two minutes of time in the second half, it was the final stretch of the first half where Whyte was the lead guard and helped the Badgers construct the lead that they would eventually win by.
“I was a little nervous with Tiera not being able to play the whole game,” Kelsey said. “But I think Dakota did a nice job out there.”
Sinclair shut down
On the other side of the floor, Wisconsin also received a gutsy performance defensively, this one coming from junior guard Morgan Paige. Paige drew the defensive assignment of guarding Indiana’s leading scorer Aulani Sinclair.
The Hoosiers’ senior forward entered Sunday’s affair averaging 16.8 points per game overall with her 12.5 scoring average in conference games good enough for 17th-best in the Big Ten.
Sinclair looked well on her way to meeting those season averages early on as she hit a quick three-pointer just two-and-a-half minutes into the first period. That was all she could muster, however, as the Badgers spotlighted her throughout with Paige and similarly quick guard Nicole Bauman.
“What we really worked on in practice was not letting her get open looks because she’s a very, very strong three-point shooter,” Paige said. “I think we missed one assignment and she ended up with that open three, so I think we did pretty good.”
Sinclair saw a lot of Paige (the two players never saw the sideline), and was forced to a meager 1-of-7 shooting performance.
“Morgan did a good job when she was assigned to her fighting over the top of ball screens or underneath ball screens,” Indiana head coach Curt Miller said. “[Aulani] looked a little tired tonight and passed on some shots she’s capable of taking.”
The job of defensive stopper is one Kelsey attributes to Paige, but her team also needed her on the offensive end. Paige won the battle with Sinclair on both ends as she limited her opponent to just three and tallied herself a game-high 17 points. Paige made four three-pointers on the night, many times creating shots for herself.
“For Morgan to play defense like that and score, that’s a lot on her,” Kelsey said. “For her to do it on both ends, that says a lot about Morgan.”