It’s the last stand for the Wisconsin women’s basketball team.
As head coach Bobbie Kelsey’s first season at the helm of Wisconsin comes to a close, the ninth-seeded Badgers will battle Minnesota, the No. 8 seed, in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Although Wisconsin has dropped six of its last seven contests, a momentum-restoring victory over Illinois Sunday established a renewed confidence that players are hoping to ride into the all-or-nothing tournament.
In this unplanned Border Battle, the Badgers aren’t disregarding the importance often placed in taking down the rival Golden Gophers, but remain focused on making sure their stay in Indianapolis lasts longer than one day.
“We are really on a positive note, especially coming off Illinois; we should be really focusing in and ready to make that push,” sophomore guard Moran Paige said. “It will be really exciting. I think it’s going to be fun because we have some returners that have been there but we also have freshmen that get to get out there for the first time.”
Despite finishing 5-11 in Big Ten play, Wisconsin earned a rather favorable matchup, as they already took down the Gophers Jan. 26 in Minneapolis. However, Minnesota has since proven they have talent to bring down the conference’s best, defeating an Ohio State squad that earned a No. 2 seed in the tournament.
At the heart of the Gophers’ offense is freshman guard Rachel Banham, who posts an average of 16.1 points per game and can catch fire from outside as a 43.8 percent three-point shooter.
UW forward Cassie Rochel played alongside Banham at Lakeville North High School in Lakeville, Minn., and calls the young Gophers’ guard her “best friend.” And while all personal relationships will be tossed aside once the two face off at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Rochel can’t help but be impressed by her friend’s ability to score from any spot on the court.
“She’s a penetrator. She’s got really good handles, so no matter what she’s probably going to break a trap or take you one-on-one off the dribble,” Rochel said. “She’s got a great pull-up, she can go to the basket, she can finish really well and she’s got a phenomenal three-point shot.”
While the Badgers can count on standout guard Taylor Wurtz and senior forward Anya Covington – who could be playing the final game of her college career – to produce on the offensive end, the key to victory may lie on the glass. Rebounding has become an emphasis for Wisconsin much of the year as they have too often handed their opponents put-back opportunities thanks to a lack of aggressiveness on the boards.
However, all that changed when the Badgers outrebounded the Fighting Illini by a 36-17 margin Sunday. Kelsey & Co. believe how UW employs its height advantage over a smaller, guard-heavy Minnesota squad to gain an edge on the glass will be critical for Wisconsin.
“The edge is maybe on the boards, who can get out and get some easy baskets, who can push the tempo a little bit, take care of the ball, so it can tip in either way,” Kelsey said. “I think this is a very good matchup for us.”
Complimenting Banham on the offensive side is senior guard Kiara Buford, who averages more than 13 points per game, along with the Gophers’ primary post presence in 6-foot-4 forward Katie Loberg.
As the Badgers face one of the more undersized teams in the conference, much of the offense could run through Covington, along with Rochel and forward Ashley Thomas, as they look to establish a dominating presence close to the rim.
“Because they’re guard-oriented, we need to make our advantage known inside,” sophomore guard Morgan Paige said. “Especially rebounding – if we have the size advantage, we need to capitalize on that.”
With remarkably similar shooting stats on the season – both Minnesota and Wisconsin average close to 40 percent from the field and 34 percent from beyond the arc – issues like turnovers and offensive rebounds will be an essential factor in who emerges with the win.
While many players still vividly recall the tremendous disappointment of losing in the first round of last year’s Big Ten tournament, they are determined to make a longer stay in Indianapolis this time around. With little chance at qualifying for the WNIT or NCAA tournaments without a lengthy run in the conference tournament, the entire team realizes what’s at stake.
As Kelsey sees it, it’s the final opportunity to go on a thrilling run that would leave players with a lasting, positive memory of this season.
“You don’t want moral victories, but you certainly want to let your players know that, hey, they have the opportunity to do something great,” Kelsey said. “If you play together and you’re consistent and you’re not turning the ball over, the little things that are going to make you successful, you have a chance to win the game.”