The Christmas trees are long gone, the stockings are no longer hung by the fireplace with care and there are no more reindeer in the front yard, but somewhere off in the distance with a finely tuned ear, Andy Williams’ voice can still be heard. That’s because it’s March, the most wonderful time of year. Regardless of basketball fanaticism or lack thereof, March Madness unites the people of the United States for a few short weeks, destroying productivity and igniting school pride.
And Thursday afternoon at the Sears Centre outside of Chicago, the fitting for Cinderella’s glass slipper begins with Morgan Paige and the rest of the Wisconsin women’s basketball team hoping they are a perfect match.
“It’s a new season really. You start zero-zero. It’s tournament play; everything just changes. The mentality, you win or you go home,” the junior guard said, because if the Badgers don’t win the tournament they likely won’t play again this season. “Literally, for us, we might not get another opportunity to play postseason, so you take every game as your last opportunity.”
Wisconsin comes into the Big Ten tournament as the No. 11 seed — the lowest seed it has ever been since the tournament began in 1995 — after an overall record of 11-18 and a 3-13 Big Ten record during the regular season. But in postseason tournaments, records hardly mean anything, and any team can win or lose any given day as Wisconsin head coach Bobbie Kelsey described.
“If you’re worth your salt, you’re dangerous. Just showing up, you’re dangerous. You can’t go by records; you can’t go by what you did against somebody before. That’s where teams get in trouble. They start looking back and reminiscing, but they’re not ready for the game and you lose,” Kelsey said.
The first test for the Badgers comes Thursday against Illinois, whom Wisconsin has already fallen to twice this season. In those losses, the glaring and coincidentally identical statistic is the 27 turnovers Wisconsin committed in both games. Illinois’ buzz trap defense allowed the Illini to steal the ball 19 times in the first game at the Kohl Center and 17 the second time the teams met in Champaign, Ill.
Both Paige and Kelsey acknowledged that the Illini ball-hawking defense and ball handling will be primary concerns, but success Thursday and in the rest of tournament all starts with the right attitude.
“You’ve got to win four in four days, which is very difficult, but it can be done. We can be the first ones to do it,” Kelsey said, pointing out no other Wisconsin team has won the Big Ten tournament or even gotten to the championship game. “You’ve got to believe you can win. If you’re thinking, ‘I hope we do,’ then don’t even go to the tournament. You got to believe you can go out there and win because we don’t know who is going to win the other games. It could be all-around upsets; you just never know. That’s the good thing about the tournament.”
If Wisconsin were to win the first game against Illinois it would take on the three-seed Purdue Friday afternoon in the quarterfinal game. Luck did end up somewhat on the Badgers’ side with their placement in the tournament, as it has the two-seed Nebraska on its side of the bracket with No. 1 Penn State on the other. The other good news for Wisconsin is that it played close, competitive games with every single team in the field, with the one exception an 84-40 drubbing at Penn State Jan. 17.
So despite its less than appealing record this season, all the adversity and close losses Wisconsin has dealt with certainly could pay great dividends in the tournament. And no one would appreciate wins and more games in tournament than senior co-captain Tiera Stephen, whose career is ticking down to its final moments.
“She deserves to go out with some more games. You don’t want her last game to be Thursday, so we’re going to work our hardest,” Paige said of Stephen.
Stephen and the Badgers have certainly caught their share of bad breaks this season in losing two players to transfer and senior guard Taylor Wurtz and sophomore guard AnnMarie Brown to injuries. And although the downturns have damped the mood somewhat, the one thing the Badgers haven’t lost is their desire.
“That’s one thing I know I’m not worried about,” Stephen said of her team’s drive to compete. “At the end of the day, I know my team is going to fight no matter who we play…we might be down by 20 with two minutes left to play in the game, but we’re still going to fight to the final buzzer.”