Even with a season-ending overtime loss Sunday to Iowa, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team (20-9, 10-8 Big Ten) heads to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament with as much confidence and promise as any team in the Lisa Stone era.
However, although at least three bracketologists currently foresee the first Badger NCAA berth since 2002, leading scorer and second-team All-Big Ten selection Alyssa Karel said the team is not getting ahead of itself.
“This tournament probably has a good amount to do with if we’re going to make the NCAA or not,” Karel said. “We kind of set [the NCAAs] as the standard … but I think that’s not our sole purpose. We’re going in there to win a Big Ten championship, and if we make the NCAA Tournament as a result, great.”
Also great for the group is the fact that the first step in its quest to win the conference showdown will come a day later than usual, as, after earning the No. 4 seed with its best conference finish since 2000-01, the team will receive a bye and face No. 5 Purdue Friday.
The rubber match between the two (the teams split in the regular season with both protecting home court) presents Wisconsin with an opportunity for vengeance.
In the last meeting, on Feb. 7, the game ended controversially as Karel blocked a Purdue shot with 11 seconds remaining, gathered the loose ball as she fell to the floor and tried signaling for a timeout. Instead, the referees called Karel for traveling, and the Boilermakers’ Chelsea Jones put the game away with a jumper with three seconds left.
Though the matchup was in the books nearly a month ago, UW head coach Lisa Stone reported that the end sequence is still “fresh in their minds.”
Sophomore forward Anya Covington agreed.
“It’s not good to allow the game to be decided by the referees,” Covington said. “We have to take care of business throughout the game so that doesn’t happen. … And because of how the call went at the end of the game [in February], that really left a bitter taste in our mouth. But it’s just motivation, because we get them on Friday.”
Despite being the higher seed, the Badgers are well aware they will have their hands full. Purdue has reached the Big Ten championship game in each of the past four seasons and boasts a record seven conference tournament titles.
Led by second-team All-Big Ten pick Brittany Rayburn, a 6-foot sophomore guard averaging 14.6 points, and All-Defensive team member FahKara Malone, a 5-foot-3 senior who ranks fourth in the league in assists, the Boilermakers will be playing to salvage a mediocre season, as they currently stand just 14-15 and 9-9 in the conference.
Compounding the challenge, according to Stone, is the inherent intimacy involved when playing a team for the third time.
“We know each other inside and out,” said Stone, who was named the coaches’ Big Ten Coach of the Year on Monday. “You have to execute your gameplan perfectly. It’s about the details, it’s about the little things, the ‘X-factor,’ the hustle, getting those 50-50 balls, limiting second-chance points, taking care of the basketball, shot selection. … When you play a team three times, you know who they are — we can’t have breakdowns.”
If Wisconsin survives against Purdue, more chances at redemption could lie ahead. Hypothetically, the team could meet No. 1 Ohio State — which will first face the winner of the 8/9 match-up between Indiana and Illinois — in the second round, and possibly Iowa, the No. 3 seed, in the championship.
The Buckeyes and the Hawkeyes represent the only two conference teams the Badgers didn’t beat at least once in conference play. OSU and Iowa, along with No. 2 seed Michigan State — which UW beat twice this season — are the likely favorites for the Big Ten title.
“If we get a chance to play either of those teams along the line, we have a lot of bitterness from those two teams because they both beat us twice,” Covington said. “But one game at a time, so Purdue’s first, and if we get that opportunity then we’re going to put it all out there.”
Following a Big Ten season in which parity was the rule (just four games separated third from 11th-place), one game at a time is an appropriate motto.
“We just want to go in there and play our best basketball,” Karel said. “Regardless of who we play, we know it’s going to be a good game. The Big Ten is so close this year; it’s kind of fun to look at the bracket and say, ‘Anything could happen, really.’ So I mean we’re going in there with the mindset that we want to win it and we’re going to take one game at a time.”