Tiera Stephen is the lone senior on the Wisconsin women’s basketball team and Thursday night was most likely her final game taking to the Kohl Center floor. Even with a greater sense of urgency from Stephen with her career winding down, the Badgers were unable to tie the game late in regulation, falling to No. 20 Nebraska 55-53.
Stephen’s urgency was noticeable from the opening whistle, as she elected to take a three-pointer only 46 seconds into the game — only the 14th time Stephen has attempted a shot from behind the arc this season.
Despite missing that shot it was clear Stephen came ready to play on senior night, and with her career-high 15 points, Wisconsin (11-17 overall, 3-12 Big Ten) kept itself in the game until the final buzzer.
Wisconsin head coach Bobbie Kelsey, although disheartened by yet another close loss, took pride in how her team and her only senior played throughout the game against the Cornhuskers (22-6, 12-3).
“I am proud of the effort. I thought it was fitting that Tiera had the ball at the end, and she would make that shot probably eight out of ten times. But she came up a little short there,” Kelsey said. “I wish she had made it because it’s Senior Night and it would have been fitting for her to make that shot.”
Setting up the final shot was a missed free-throw by Nebraska’s Lindsey Moore, after which Cassie Rochel grabbed the rebound and dished the ball off to Stephen for the final sequence.
Before the second free-throw attempt from Moore, Kelsey called her final timeout and drew up a play for Stephen for the final shot.
“We were supposed to set a high on-post screen and then put the shooters in the corners and let Tiera navigate in there,” Kelsey said. “She got a good look. It wasn’t as pretty. At this point [with no timeouts] you don’t have time to set up a play. You just have to get the ball down the court, and we had a good look.”
Stephen dribbled the ball at the top of the key while the clock ticked below five seconds and could not find any open looks. Finally, she decided to penetrate the left side and as the clock wound down toward zero, Stephen rose and fired from the left free-throw line extended.
As the clock hit zero, the ball bounced off the rim and Stephen’s Senior Night became bittersweet.
But only a few minutes earlier in the second half, Wisconsin led the Cornhuskers by as much as five points and had control of the game. Thanks to four straight field goals by Jacki Gulczynski, the Badgers tied the game at 37 with 14:35 remaining in the game and then held a five point lead with 9:55 to play.
Gulczynski commented after the game on what allowed her to break loose for eight straight points, and once again Stephen played a vital role.
“I would just say the flow of the game, and trying to get open look,” Gulczynski said. “Tiera did a great job penetrating, and I just tried to shoot the ball as quickly as I could because they had a lot of length on us.”
But, as has been the theme this season, a late scoring drought ended up costing the Badgers the game in the final minutes. After Gulczynski’s basket at 9:55, she was held scoreless the rest of the way, and the rest of the Badgers mustered only six points.
Wisconsin’s lack of depth with only nine available players played a key role in the lack of late scoring according to Kelsey.
“We have gone on little droughts,” Kelsey said. “Some of that is attributed to these players are playing the whole game. We have a short bench. There is nothing we can do about that. There are going to be times when we struggle to score. They’re tired.”
In vying for another upset of a ranked team at home, the Badgers were also trying to conclude Stephen’s home career on an emphatic note. Unfortunately, for both the co-captain and her fellow teammates, there was simply not enough left in the tank for one last comeback.
Stephen finished with 15 points, five rebounds, seven assists and two steals. But more importantly, in the face of a loss, she finished with the right attitude.
“At the end of the day, it’s a game,” Stephen said. “We are healthy individuals blessed beyond measures. So at the end of the day it is humbling, but I have to take a look back at my whole career. It’s been a blessing.
“Of course I’m upset about this one game, but it is a game. Tomorrow is a new day. We can’t dwell on it too much.”