Taylor Wurtz led the Badgers in scoring, but even though the Badgers pulled to within one, weren’t able to prevail in a game that was close the whole way through.[/media-credit]

Facing the best backcourt and probably the most explosive team it has faced this year, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team (2-6) fell to Duke (8-0) 59-51 Thursday. However, the loss proved the Badgers’ defensive intensity can keep them in games against even the best teams.

Down nine at halftime, UW’s defense was able to come out of the locker room strong and decrease Duke’s lead to just three early in the second half. Keeping the Blue Devils scoreless for over three minutes to start the half, the strong defensive effort kept the Badgers in the game all night.

Perhaps most impressive, the Badgers were able to limit the Blue Devils to 18 points in the paint, a sign that they were able to keep their talented lineup of guards from getting a lot of easy drives through the lane.

“They’re a very gifted, very talented, very loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans, and we shut that lane down,” UW head coach Lisa Stone said. “Shut it down good, but we gave them too many second chance opportunities. But our defense did keep us in the game…that’s who we are.”

When the ACC squad did try to take it through the lane, the task was rarely easy. Wisconsin was very physical, often forcing fouls and sending the message that they would not allow uncontested layups.

A team that has averaged 75 points per game this year, Wisconsin was able to hold Duke to just 27 points in the first half and 59 points on the game. Never allowing the Blue Devils’ high-scoring backcourt to find a strong rhythm, Duke went 20-for-60 in the game, shooting just 33 percent from the field.

Wisconsin’s defense also limited Duke’s success from behind the arc, as the Blue Devils converted just 25 percent of their three-point shots in the game.

“It all started from the gameplan of no lane, and I mean our defense is team defense so obviously it comes from my teammates,” sophomore guard Taylor Wurtz said. “We’re just in the gap for one another and it worked out.”

Making a statement early on by forcing the Blue Devils to throw up an airball on their first possession, the Badgers maintained the defensive intensity throughout the game. Showing great effort on every play, Wisconsin was able to force 14 turnovers against a fundamentally strong Duke team.

Defense was an issue UW struggled with during its recent six-game losing skid, allowing four opponents to score more than 65 points. Not only did the Badgers hold a team to less than 60 points for the second time in six games tonight, but they did so against a loaded ACC opponent.

“When you play like that against such a good team, it gives you so much confidence knowing that, the rest of the teams we’re going to play, we have the capability to beat every team,” senior guard Alyssa Karel said.

A major part of the confidence the Badgers gained tonight undoubtedly came from their impressive defense against the Blue Devils. Holding the team’s leading scorer, senior guard Jasmine Thomas, to 4-of-14 shooting and 14 points, below her season average. Another member of Duke’s highly touted backcourt, senior guard Karima Christmas was held to 2-of-9 shooting and finished with nine points. A solid portion of the scoring for these players came from the charity stripe, a promising defensive sign for Wisconsin.

A team that often talks about themselves as a defense-first squad, they proved just how much that approach can do for this team against the Blue Devils.

“It’s another loss, but I tell you what, this team turned the page today,” Stone said. “We played very, very good defense, we just didn’t box out.”

There is little doubt after Thursday’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge that the UW women’s basketball team gained some important momentum as the conference season approaches.

For a defensive-minded team, limiting the success of Duke’s prolific backcourt and displaying a tenacious intensity on the defensive end, this was an important game for the team. Against the Blue Devils, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team finally regained the defensive foundation of their program.

“There’s so many great things to take away from this game. I was so proud of my entire time, the fact that Duke came in here and we weren’t intimidated at all,” Karel said. “We know now we’re a good team and we can compete with anyone.”