On the last night of February, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team was having a special night. Tiera Stephen was being honored as the lone graduating senior and the Kohl Center was hosting its final women’s basketball game of the season against No. 20 Nebraska.
It was a night like the one Wisconsin spent upsetting then-No. 7 Penn State on the last night of January, just four weeks prior — certainly one of their favorite nights of the season — and it was happening again. It was déjà vu for Wisconsin — another ranked opponent visiting the Kohl Center on a Thursday night — and they were more than happy to view it again.
Only this version ended as more of a bad dream than a lovely reoccurrence for the Badgers. Wisconsin (11-17 overall, 3-12 Big Ten) fought its way to a lead throughout a back-and-forth second half and it looked like UW would topple another ranked opponent, but déjà vu faded and Nebraska (22-6, 12-3) proved itself worthy of its second place position in the Big Ten with a crucial win on the road, 55-53.
The loss marked the 10th game in which Wisconsin had lost by single digits, an unfortunate sign to head coach Bobbie Kelsey.
“Well, I guess we’re saying the same thing,” Kelsey said following their third consecutive single-digit loss. “We came up a little short … I just feel terrible that we couldn’t pull it out.”
It wasn’t until the final few possessions, however, that Wisconsin lost hope of its short history repeating itself.
With a quick 5-0 Nebraska start, the unranked Badgers trailed the No. 20 Huskers for nearly the entire first half, but that didn’t mean they were far from leading.
When Nebraska took the lead for good after four minutes of play, Wisconsin remained just out of arms reach, holding the deficit to a maximum of seven throughout the first frame. The cardinal and white never grabbed the lead from the Big Red, however.
UW would make a bucket and Nebraska would follow with a version of its own. Morgan Paige’s layups were answered by layups from Husker guard Lindsey Moore. Turnovers on one end of the court were followed by turnovers on the opposite end.
Cassie Rochel had her shot blocked with just seconds remaining in the first half and the Badgers entered the locker room trailing 31-27, just a few points removed from their 33-29 deficit in January against the Nittany Lions.
The star of the night Jan. 31 was Paige. Her bucket gave the Badgers their first second half lead just minutes into the final frame. On Thursday, the spotlight was on Stephen as she did the same with a bucket of her own early on in the final 20 minutes, putting the Badgers ahead 39-37.
Sophomore guard Jacki Gulczynski helped extend the Wisconsin lead to its eventual pinnacle with an eight-point stretch of her own at the halfway point in the second half.
“I would just say the flow of the game, trying to get open looks,” Gulczynski said, describing her scoring streak that carried the Badgers.
Her fourth bucket in a row put Wisconsin up five at 47-42. It would be her last field goal of the game and her teammates would only convert three more in the final 10 minutes.
Nebraska would gradually chip into the Wisconsin lead, eventually jumping ahead on a layup by freshman Rachel Theriot with just less than two minutes remaining. The lead would swap hands twice as Paige’s driving layup was matched by a layup from forward Hallie Sample.
The play wasn’t typical, however. A no-call on a controversial move by Theriot appeared to be a travel as the Nebraska guard’s right foot slid out from beneath her in the Husker lane. No call was made and a quick-thinking Lindsey Moore found Sample near the rim for the eventual game-winning basket, which left Kelsey speechless.
“You tell me,” Kelsey said. “I just had to stop trying to get any kind of call, because I’m not sure what they were seeing. I saw a whole bunch of traveling.”
A final parallel to the last night of January made it seem like destiny was set for senior night and Stephen. Her offensive rebound and put back provided the winning points against Penn State.
With just 28 seconds remaining and Wisconsin down one, Stephen grabbed another offensive board from the exact position on the floor. This time, the 5-foot-7 point guard was forced away from the lane and the prevailing set ended in a Gulczynski turnover.
Wisconsin had one final chance, down two following a missed free throw by Moore. With just ten seconds to create a tying chance, Stephen received a ball screen at the top of the key with Paige and Gulczynski waiting in opposite corners.
Stephen couldn’t find her sharpshooting teammates or create enough separation for a drive and was forced to take a 15-foot baseline jumper, 12 feet from where she beat Penn State.
This try drew iron but no net and her senior night closed in heartbreaking fashion.
“I knew they weren’t going to leave Morgan and Jacki,” Stephen said. “So I dribbled, but I can’t dribble forever, so I had to get a shot up.”
Kelsey figured it had a good chance of falling for the senior, noting that Stephen probably makes that shot eight times out of 10.
“To Tiera’s credit, she got a shot up,” Kelsey said. “If you don’t get one up, you don’t get a chance to win the game.”