When a struggling team needs a quick boost of confidence, there’s nothing that helps more than a victory. Laying down an old-fashioned beat-down, however, is something else entirely.
Fresh off the heels of routing Northwestern 75-55, Wisconsin (6-13, 2-5) looks to continue its solid play Thursday when it travels to Minnesota (11-10, 3-4) for a border battle with the Golden Gophers.
Wisconsin will face one of the better one-two guard punches in the conference when it plays in Williams Arena, as Minnesota’s backcourt duo of freshman sensation Rachel Banham and tested senior Kiara Buford lead the Gophers’ offensive attack that averages 65.7 points per game.
Banham, Minnesota’s Miss Basketball just a year ago, has already impressed in her first season as a Gopher. Against the No. 1 Baylor Bears earlier this season, the freshman posted a career high 19 points to go along with five rebounds and two assists.
Banham leads Minnesota with 15.4 points per contest and is also a tremendous threat from deep. Besides being in the top ten in the conference in points per game, Banham currently boasts the second-best shooting percentage in the Big Ten from beyond the arc, averaging an amazing .444 percent.
Complementing the young Banham is Buford, a senior and consistent scorer from anywhere on the court. There is little if no drop off between the two, as Buford averages 13.5 points per game, 15th-best in the conference. Besides owning a streak of 14 consecutive games of double-digit points at one point this season, Buford is also a three-point threat, as the senior shoots .372 percent from downtown.
Wisconsin head coach Bobbie Kelsey knows if the Badgers hope to win Thursday night, they must contain the Gophers’ scoring pair.
“Well they are obviously a big key to what Minnesota is trying to do,” Kelsey said. “Banham, being a freshman, is really getting it done for them. We’re going to have to try to get the ball out of her hands.”
“Same thing with Buford she’s a really nice shooter for them, and she takes what the defense gives her. She’s got a nice pull up, and we have to make sure we don’t let her get going either and everybody else for that matter. You take two away and sometimes the other players go off, so we’ll need a total team effort. We have a little plan, so we’ll see how it works.”
Although Kelsey wasn’t revealing anything about the plan before the game, there are a few areas that the Badgers can look to exploit in their matchup with the Gophers. The first is three-point shooting. While the Badgers shoot the third-highest percentage in the conference from three at .337 percent, the Gophers give up the fourth highest percentage from beyond the arc at .316 percent.
Minnesota is also catching Wisconsin at a bad time, as the Badgers are coming off one of their best shooting games of the season. Against Northwestern this past Sunday, the Badgers shot over .400 percent from three, including a stretch where sophomore guard Morgan Paige hit four in a row.
“Hopefully, the shots we do take go down because in the past we’ve taken a lot of three point shots and they haven’t gone in,” Kelsey said. “People on our team seem to be a little hot, and I’m not sure what [Minnesota] is going to do to stop us, like keep Morgan from hitting four in a row. I don’t anticipate Morgan being open, but again, more people scoring means they have to key in on somebody, and if they do that on Morgan we can throw it inside and go to work on the block.”
If Wisconsin hopes to receive truly consistent scoring against Minnesota, it will need its frontcourt to have a strong showing. While Wisconsin senior Anya Covington will most likely battle down low with Minnesota’s Katie Loberg, the Gophers lack height across the boards to challenge the likes of Covington and fellow Badger post sophomore Cassie Rochel. With only one Gopher player in the immediate rotation taller than 6-foot-3, the Badgers will look to lean on their own bigs.
“I think we’re just going to try to play our game,” Paige said. “Anya’s been having some great matchups inside, so I feel like the more touches we get to her it’s going to be a positive result. I wouldn’t say that’s our game plan, but she’s just one of our top options right now.”