They both stand at 6-foot-2, play the same position on the floor and are in their last year donning a cardinal and white uniform. Yet forwards Anya Covington and Ashley Thomas have each managed to carve out distinct roles for the Wisconsin women’s basketball team en route to establishing themselves as the unanimous emotional leaders.
Close friends off the court who say they are deeply united by their strong faith, the two players faced perhaps the greatest challenge of their careers last March when the team sat in a kind of limbo after Barry Alvarez fired head coach Lisa Stone. Though Covington, a three-time captain, had already established her role as Wisconsin’s ever-positive emotional anchor, it was a breakthrough moment for the less experienced Thomas.
“We were without a coach for a couple weeks there, and during that time we had to rely on ourselves,” Covington said. “I knew Ashley was always a leader, but that’s when I really saw her show a greater amount of leadership basketball wise; when we had no coach and then people step up. … It was just beautiful to see because we were on our own.”
The more physical Covington has taken over as the Badgers’ primary post option in her senior year with 10.5 points per contest to complement 6.4 boards a game. But her much improved numbers have in no way fueled a heated battle with Thomas to be UW’s No. 1 post option. Thomas admits that as a younger player she once focused on statistics like playing time and scoring, but her approach has shifted over a four-year career.
“Obviously Anya plays a bigger role in scoring and being more productive, but Ashley finds her niche as far as screening and getting people open,” head coach Bobbie Kelsey said. “They’re similar in that way, but obviously they’re different players even though they play the same position. They have different responsibilities as far as what they’re supposed to be doing out there.”
Since arriving on campus in 2008, the duo has only experienced the thrill of playing in an NCAA Tournament once (in 2009-10), but before this year had never played on a team that finished the season below .500.
With the Badgers currently standing at 8-18, it hasn’t been the storybook senior season for Covington, Thomas or the team’s third senior, guard Jade Davis. But Kelsey has credited her eldest players with keeping this team together through a rebuilding year.
Though Thomas – a Glenview, Ill., native – has seen her scoring more than triple since last season (4.6 points per), she now reflects on her basketball career with a wider lens – a view echoed by her fellow senior forward.
“I can’t stand losing, when we have those long droughts of losses without a win in there, it’s hard, but I feel like this team has made it easy in a sense because we’ve stuck together,” Thomas said. “It was never ‘it’s so-and-so’s fault’ or ‘so-and-so didn’t do this.’ We were always able to find the positive in what happened in the game.”
Though they can both be heard testing the limits of their vocal cords from the sidelines or yelling for other players to get in position during games, Covington and Thomas each bring a distinguished style to rallying the Badgers.
Covington – though not a point guard – could aptly be described as the team’s floor general and is rarely silent when on the floor. Never short on enthusiasm, the senior who started nine games last season carries the rare brand of infectious confidence that keeps every player relentlessly striving for success.
Thomas, the more reserved forward whose voice can also be heard echoing through the Kohl Center rafters, prefers to console players individually and delivers powerful messages in fewer words.
“I just really get into it and Ashley’s really grounded, so when she says something everyone pays attention because she’s really grounded in what she’s saying; she really thought about it,” Covington said. “I’m usually talking the most and I think what I say matters, but when Ashley speaks it’s just deeper.”
Much like their unique approaches in carrying the team through an often frustrating season, the two senior forwards serve quite different roles when they are on the court. While Covington has emerged as UW’s most reliable option in the paint, Thomas has embraced the unheralded role of setting up scoring opportunities for her teammates.
But, in a way that exudes their approach to basketball, both could not be more content with how their career in Madison has unfolded. With just one home game remaining, it may not be the senior season they imagined as optimistic freshmen, but Covington and Thomas together bring a competitive yet collected attitude that has come to define the Wisconsin women’s basketball team.
“We’re friends because we’ve been through the same things together and helped each other through those ups-and-downs that we’ve experienced both on and off the court,” Thomas noted. “We’ve definitely grown, I know we can trust each other, rely on one another, and know that they’re there because they’ve been there from the beginning.”