When sophomore forward Lin Zastrow went down with an ankle injury with 5:35 remaining in the first half, Wisconsin’s hopes of defeating Kentucky for the second time in the WNIT in three years appeared to go with her.
Despite leading 14-8 before Zastrow left the game, UW allowed Kentucky to go on a 22-9 run over the next 14 minutes, as the Wildcats extended their lead to 30-23 following a fast break layup and a free throw for a three-point play by guard Carly Ormerod.
Of the 22 points, the Wildcats scored 10 in the paint and five from the free throw line as the Badgers struggled to defend inside with Zastrow on the bench.
Fortunately for the Badgers, forwards Caitlin Gibson and Tara Steinbauer stepped up over the final 11 minutes and 40 seconds of play, combining for 13 of Wisconsin’s final 26 points and playing excellent on the defensive end as well.
“When we got down by seven we didn’t bail,” UW head coach Lisa Stone said. “We continued to fight and got great contributions from [Gibson and Steinbauer].”
The performance of the two forwards was especially important with UW leading scorer Alyssa Karel struggling offensively Sunday, as she shot just 3-for-18 from the field and 1-for-5 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Steinbauer paced the Badgers offensively, shooting 6-of-10 from the floor and 6-for-8 from the free throw line en route to a career-high 18 points against the Wildcats.
The 6-foot-1 forward energized the UW squad late in the second half, scoring 13 of her 18 points in the period including a tough layup while falling to the ground, which she followed with a free throw for the three-point play.
“Tara had an outstanding game,” Stone said. “[She] made a big three-point play the old fashioned way with a shot to the floor late in the second half that was big, (and) made key free throws obviously.”
Gibson, who as a senior appeared determined to not let Sunday’s game against Kentucky be her last at the Kohl Center, recorded season highs in both points and rebounds with eight points on 4-of-7 shooting and five rebounds, all of which came off the defensive glass.
After playing just six minutes in the first half, Gibson played all but four minutes in the second half to fill in for the injured Zastrow as she scored six of her eight points in the period.
“Caitlin gave us big minutes with Lin being down,” Stone said.
Zastrow’s injury threw a curveball at Wisconsin, a team that was already thin in the frontcourt following the dismissal of forward Mariah Dunham at the beginning of February.
When Gibson and Steinbauer saw their teammate needing help off the court and to the bench in the first half, they knew they would need to step up in the remaining 25 minutes, especially Gibson who averaged just 6.5 minutes per game entering Sunday’s contest.
“When Lin went down, I knew it wasn’t a joke,” Gibson said. “She got a little teary-eyed and she usually doesn’t do that, so I was ready. I was ready to go in, and I just did the best I could.”
With Zastrow out, the Badgers showcased their depth Sunday as all 11 players in uniform played at least one minute for Wisconsin.
And though Steinbauer and Gibson sat for just a combined seven minutes in the second half, freshmen Anya Covington and Ashley Thomas filled in nicely when they needed to rest.
As the Badgers move forward to a Thursday quarterfinal matchup with St. Bonaventure, the Badgers aren’t worried about a lack of depth at the post position.
“It’s just next player in,” Stone said of their mentality. “That’s the way it goes and … if Lin can go, she can. If she can’t, then Caitlin’s ready to go.”