In a thrilling 66-60 victory over the Michigan Wolverines Monday night, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team finally proved its resiliency.
Junior guard Taylor Wurtz sunk a layup to put the Badgers (8-13, 4-5 Big Ten) up by two with 3:29 remaining, and Bobbie Kelsey’s squad never looked back, staving off a late Michigan (16-6, 5-4 Big Ten) comeback. With a seemingly secure 16-point lead early in the second half, the Wolverines came back in full force with a 16-0 run that tied things up at 47.
But forward Cassie Rochel and Wurtz hit the nerve-wracking free throws that have cost them numerous games this season to put away the conference’s fifth-ranked team.
“I think early on we were really learning how to play,” Kelsey said. “Again, when you lose a lot of your scoring from last year, a lot of these players haven’t been in these situations in the game. They’ve been on the bench cheering, but when you’re in the game it’s different, you have to make the play.”
The win – which marked the Badgers’ third conference win in a row, their longest such streak of the season – also saw a momentum-changing three-pointer from veteran guard Jade Davis just under the 2:30 mark. Davis tied a season high with 13 points.
Moving the ball around smoothly on the offensive end and proving that they are effectively adjusting to Kelsey’s new system, the Badgers jumped out to a 10-point lead at halftime. Surrendering just 16 points in the opening period, Wisconsin allowed Michigan to nearly triple that number in the latter half with 44.
But UW relied on role players like the 6-foot-4 Rochel – who scored seven key points in the final five minutes – to pull off the upset on the Kohl Center hardwood.
“Our biggest strength as a team is just staying together during pressure situations,” Wurtz said. “And I think that we’ve learned how to hit big shots down the end, and obviously we have things to work on, but we’re learning how to play better defense towards the end.”
The Badgers continued to struggle from beyond the arc all game, shooting just 28.6 percent from three-point range, but ended the night with a 44.6 percentage from the floor thanks to a combination of high-percentage layups and quality jumpers.
Allowing the Wolverines back into the contest with a string of turnovers (which Michigan turned into 16 points in the game) and throwing the ball up from outside despite tough looks, guard Morgan Paige said her teammates learned from their mistakes earlier this year.
“Even when they went on the run, we didn’t get down on each other, we didn’t disband,” she said. “If anything, we tried even harder to get closer in that huddle and make sure we were setting up the next play on offense, and just knowing that we could come out of it. And I think that’s due to the experience in earlier games this season where we have fallen apart.”
The Badgers limited standout Michigan center Rachel Sheffer to just five points in the first half, but she was a key part of UM’s comeback with 15 points on 6 of 11 shooting in the final 20 minutes of the game.
Though Wisconsin struggled for consistency much of the game, Wurtz – the Badgers’ leading scorer with 15.8 points per game – finished with a team-high 21 points. Converting 53.8 percent of her shots on 7 of 13 shooting, Wurtz missed only one of her shots from the charity stripe and sealed the victory by sinking three free throws in the final 36 seconds.
Still dwelling in the bottom half of the conference standings at No. 8 after defeating the Wolverines, Kelsey had a renewed sense of confidence in her team as the development and improvement visible at many moments this season finally translated into a ‘W.’
“I want them to look back on their experience and say ‘we gave it our all,'” Kelsey said. “Not I wish I could have, should have, would have, didn’t, it’s over. You’re only out here a short time, and if you go out there and fight and scrap, you have a chance. If you don’t, you won’t win, it’s just that simple for me.”
“But we’re very proud of them, we’re going to keep working.”