The Wisconsin women’s basketball team heads into its Thursday night matchup against No. 11 Michigan State in a rare position. The Badgers are tied with Penn State for first place in the Big Ten and are half a game ahead of the Spartans (18-3, 6-2 Big Ten).
The most recent occasion of the Badgers leading the Big Ten conference past the mid-point of the season was the 1994-1995 season when they were 8-3. This season Wisconsin sits at 7-2 in the Big Ten (12-9 overall) and Thursday night’s game will probably give a good indication of whether the Badgers will contend for the Big Ten Conference Championship as the regular season wraps up.
The Badgers and the Spartans have already played each other once in East Lansing this season, and Michigan State definitely got the best of Wisconsin, winning 62-43. At the time, Wisconsin was not at full strength, with senior forward Lin Zastrow sidelined by injury.
“This is one we need to get back,” assistant coach Oties Epps said. “Quite frankly we were a man down at Michigan State, and it was a game we let get away.”
The players seem to feel like this game has a personal tone to it as well, and that they didn’t play up to their own standards in the last meeting.
“We have a score to settle with them,” senior forward Tara Steinbauer says. “We went there and I think we showed our true colors for about ten minutes of that game and the other 30 didn’t even closely resemble what we are capable of.”
One major obstacle in Wisconsin’s quest for victory is Michigan State senior forward Kalisha Keane. Keane paces the Spartans with 15.8 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Although playing the forward position, Keane is also MSU’s top outside scoring presence. She has made 45 3-point field goals this season on 37.5 percent shooting.
“She is their emotional leader,” Epps said. “She is a phenomenal talent, very versatile. She can pretty much play [four different positions] for them on the court, and she does more than just score the ball. She gets other people involved; she gets excited about every little thing that their team does and that resonates through their team.”
While the Badgers won’t assign one specific player to guard the impressive Keane, the players still know they each will have responsibility in trying to slow her down.
“It’s a team effort. We’re not going to put one person on her and say shut her down,” Steinbauer said. “[Defending her] is going to be more reliant on the pack defense and making sure we are all in position to help when she drives and when she shoots. She is going to get looks, it’s just a matter of making sure they are contested.”
Stopping Keane will be a key to Wisconsin remaining undefeated at home during conference play. UW is currently 4-0 at the Kohl Center versus Big Ten opponents. For Wisconsin, the hope is that they can add a third conference road loss and fourth overall to Michigan State’s record. All of MSU’s prior losses have occurred on the road at the hands of No. 1 Baylor, Ohio State and the No. 20 Iowa Hawkeyes, in their most recent game.
“[Michigan State] is a top team in the Big Ten, and we’re a top team right now, so it’s going to be a great battle,” Zastrow said. “When you are at home you have to feed off that energy, you have to be ready. It’s your home court; this is your comfort zone.”
Two other important notes for Thursday night’s contest: Badgers’ head coach Lisa Stone is on the cusp of reaching a coaching milestone. Stone is currently just one win shy of the 500th win of her 26-year head coaching career. She has an all-time mark of 499-231 (.684) and is 124-113 in her eighth season coaching the Badgers.
Thursday night is also UW Student Night. Students that show a valid student ID will get into the game for free and also be rewarded with a voucher for a free hot dog and a soda, while supplies last.
First place, 500 wins and free food all up for grabs.