Despite two dominating wins in exhibition games against Winona State and UW-Superior, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team still sees plenty of room for improvement.
The Badgers start their quest to return to the NCAA Tournament Friday when they travel to Chaifetz Arena to face St. Louis. In its first ever matchup against the Atlantic 10 opponent, Wisconsin hopes to get the regular season off to a strong start. One thing the team plans to work on in its opening game against the Billikens is a strong defensive intensity, a trademark of the team in the past and something it has focused on in practice this week.
“I think that our exhibition games exposed some of our weaknesses from a defensive standpoint,” senior forward Tara Steinbauer said. “So definitely working on our one-on-one containment, our closeouts on the ball, our ability to get into the gap and be there for one another is going to be huge for us.”
A major challenge the Badgers will face against St. Louis is the team’s all-around athleticism. That athleticism starts with Lauren Woods, a senior forward who was the Billikens’ leading scorer last year. Two other starters from last season, guard Janisha Gearlds and center Kathryn Hester, will also test UW’s defense. By playing such a versatile team, this game is a prime opportunity for the Badgers to show what defensive improvements they have made since the close of the exhibition season.
“[St. Louis is] a team that is very athletic, very much to the rim,” head coach Lisa Stone said. “We’re going to have to shore up some things defensively in terms of our one-on-one containment and make sure we do a better job boxing out.”
A solid shooting team that hits more than 30 percent of its shots from beyond the arc, St. Louis’ offense is their strong point. The aggressive St. Louis squad averages more rebounds per game than Wisconsin, something to pay attention to in this game. Although Wisconsin is certainly favored against this non-conference opponent, the Badgers must be careful against a well-rounded team at home that would love to take down a Big Ten opponent.
“We know that they are a very athletic and hard-working team, so we’re just going to have to match their energy and control the tempo of the game,” sophomore guard Taylor Wurtz said.
After traveling to St. Louis Friday, Wisconsin returns to the Kohl Center Sunday to face William & Mary in its home opener. As with St. Louis, this is Wisconsin’s first ever matchup with William & Mary, a very experienced team out of the Colonial Athletic Association that lost just one starter from last season. The Tribe relies on a talented trio of guards who all averaged more than five points per game last season. Junior guard Tasha Pye, who averaged just over 14 points per game last season, along with Janine Aldridge and Katherine DeHenzel, offer a formidable challenge to Wisconsin’s defense.
“I think these two games are huge for us, because, you know, they really give us that momentum going into some of these other games, and especially going into the tournament over Thanksgiving,” Steinbauer said. “We know where we want to be at the end of the season, but we take it game by game.”
Going into these games, the Badgers already face a setback as senior guard Alyssa Karel, the team’s scoring leader last year, went down with an injury in the team’s first exhibition game. Karel will be out for at least the first two regular season games, so other seniors including Lin Zastrow and Steinbauer will need to step up. With Karel out, Wisconsin will also rely on redshirt sophomore Tiera Stephen, who hopes to return from an injury Friday, and freshman Morgan Paige to fill the point guard spot.
“Alyssa’s a big part of this team, but everybody just needs to step up and stay united, and just play team basketball, and just focus on the defensive end,” Wurtz said.
Although the team is taking it one game at a time and focusing on the game against St. Louis for now, the team understands this is just the start of a very challenging non-conference schedule. “There’s not another [non-conference schedule] that compares to this one,” Stone said. “It is a very, very tough schedule and one we’re looking forward to.”