Wisconsin will look to up its winning streak to three games (following a disappointing home loss to Illinois) when they take on No.9-ranked Michigan State (20-3, 9-2 Big Ten) Sunday night. The Spartans are only one of two teams in the Big Ten conference with 20 or more wins, but still trail league-leading Ohio State by a half a game.
Since dropping a 73-56 decision at Penn State, the Spartans have returned to form, notching wins over Purdue and Illinois, including a 101-40 thrashing of Northwestern in East Lansing. Michigan State remains one of four teams still challenging for the Big Ten title with a home rematch against Ohio State to come in the final week of the regular season.
Coming off their second straight NCAA appearance, the Spartans will be anything but an underdog in Sunday’s road trip to Wisconsin. The Badgers know the Spartans all too well after the teams’ first meeting at the Breslin Center, a matchup that occurred exactly a month ago to the day. In their previous meeting, Wisconsin fell behind by 26 points late in the second half, but rallied to get within eight at the buzzer, 74-66.
“We’re a different team,” said senior Stephanie Rich. “Ebba (Gebisa) wasn’t really playing that much, and Ashley’s (Josephson) really stepped it up, so they’re going to have to do some things with us too and worry about what were going to do.”
The Badgers shot 50 percent from the floor in that game, but committed 11 first-half turnovers, allowing the Spartans to pad their lead.
Current Spartan assistant Al Brown was also a member of the Badger staff just two seasons ago, and helped coach Wisconsin’s six upper classmen to a 7-21 mark in the 2002-2003 season. Michigan State head coach Joanne P. McCallie, now in her fifth season on the Spartan bench, has been slowly moving Michigan State up the ladder to contend not only with the Big Ten’s best, but the top teams in the country.
McCallie went from 10-18 her first season, to 22-9 last season. The Spartans are well on their way to shattering that record and McCallie’s Big Ten benchmark of ten wins. The Spartans have six players who get a bulk of the team’s minutes; those six also pick up the majority of the scoring for Michigan State.
Juniors Liz Shimek and Lindsay Bowen lead the Spartans with 14.9 and 14.7 points per game, respectively. Bowen is a menace from behind the arc, shooting 46 percent from 3-point land. Shimek, however, does most of her work in the paint, also leading the team in rebounds with 9.1 boards per game.
With Shimek making her home inside the lane the Spartans are leading the league in rebounding and out-rebound their opponents by an average of more than 10 boards per game. Senior center Kelli Roehrig averages 14 points per game, and leads the team in blocks with 31 and in field goal percentage, hitting just over 50 percent of her attempts.
The difficult task of handling the large Spartan frontcourt may fall to freshman center Danielle Ward who enjoyed, arguably, her best game of the year the last time these two foes met. Last time against the Spartans, Ward recorded a career-high 14 points in just 14 minutes of action and was a perfect 7-for-7 from the field.
“I didn’t know what I ended up with until the end of the game and the coaches pointed it out,” Ward said. “I just went in trying to do anything to help the team win.”
Point guard Kristin Haynie is the only other senior for the Spartans, and adds 9.9 points per game while leading the conference in both assists, 5.2 per game, and steals, 3.3 per game. Sophomores Victoria Lucas-Perry and Rene Haynes share the starting spot at small forward and contribute 7.1 and 7.6 points per game.
Another win over a ranked opponent would certainly go a long way for the Badgers, who hit the road for three of their last four regular season games.
“We can’t let anymore opportunities slip away,” said senior forward Ebba Gebisa. “Every game from here on out is very important and is going to be crucial to us being able to play postseason.”