On the verge of cracking the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2001-02, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team (15-4, 5-3) will try to extend its win streak to five when the Badgers play host to Penn State (13-4, 5-2) Thursday night at the Kohl Center.
The game presents a battle for second-place in the Big Ten, with the winner trailing only Ohio State (19-1, 7-0), the No. 5 team in the country, for conference supremacy.
Tara Steinbauer, who led the Badgers to their fourth straight win with a career-high 23 points against Illinois on Sunday, said the second-place carrot provides a relatively strong incentive.
“This is a huge game for us,” the junior forward said. “We have this slogan that every game is the biggest game of the year — I think that this game isn’t bigger than any other game, but we definitely are hungry for it. … It’s the battle for second-place in the conference and we want it.”
In addition to the implications for the conference standings, the game also will present a stark contrast in playing styles. Heading into the contest, the Nittany Lions rank second in the Big Ten in scoring with an average of 69.4 points per game, while the Badgers are dead last, averaging just over 60.
However, the cardinal and white lead the league in scoring defense, allowing just 52.2 points per game, compared to more than 62 for the visiting team (though PSU is No. 1 in defensive field goal percentage).
In fact, UW’s stifling defense ranks seventh nationally and is continuing to improve. Over the course of its current four-game winning streak, Lisa Stone’s squad has surrendered an average of just 48.8 points.
Equally pleasing for Stone has been the team’s improvement in taking care of the basketball — referencing Sunday’s contest in particular, when Wisconsin turned the ball over only 10 times, their second-lowest total of the season.
According to Stone, those two areas are imperative for continued success.
“We want to stay focused, keep building our defense, keep sharing the ball on offense, take care of the ball,” Stone said. “[Against Illinois] we only had those 10 turnovers. That’s a significant stat for us. If you keep playing defense and take care of the ball, good things usually happen.”
Tonight, though, both will be put to the test against a talented Penn State team that is off to its best start since 2003-04.
The Nittany Lions’ attack is led by senior guard Tyra Grant — not to be confused with Wisconsin’s Teah Gant — a reigning All-Big Ten first team selection who is currently second in the conference in scoring with an average of 19.7 a game. Last season, in a heart-breaking 58-56 overtime loss to Penn State, Grant dropped a game-high 32 on UW, on 12-of-24 shooting.
“You don’t stop Tyra Grant, you do everything you can to disrupt her,” Stone said of the opponent’s star. “She’s a special player. She can score from a lot of different areas in a lot of different ways. … Teah Gant will have the matchup with her, but she’ll have a lot of help. Our team needs to guard Tyra Grant.”
But the Nittany Lions are far from a one-trick show — their roster features exceptional height, with six players over 6-foot-1, as well as freshman point guard Alex Bentley, who ranks second among conference freshman in assists and fourth in both points and steals.
This week Bentley shared the Big Ten Freshman of the Week award with Wisconsin’s first year star Taylor Wurtz.
Yet despite the challenges of Penn State, the magnitude of the battle for second-place and expectations growing commensurate with the team’s winning percentage, Stone said she isn’t worried about her team maintaining its focus and composure.
“This team is not one that celebrates in the locker room after victories, they don’t cry in defeat,” Stone said. “They understand that there’s areas that we need to continue to improve on. … But I’m proud of the fact that this group of young women, they compete every day and they’re together. And they want to get better, and they want to accomplish some things. But the next thing they’re going to accomplish is getting ready for Penn State.”