A simple view of the world as presented in the movie “Forrest Gump” by Forrest himself is “life was like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.”
Yes, the quote has become somewhat trite and overused since Forrest uttered the words, but it points to how unpredictable life can be at times.
And the Wisconsin women’s basketball team knows this unpredictability best with all of the unexpected and less than desirable chocolates this season’s box has yielded.
The season started sweet, with high hopes, but in the recent weeks has turned sour as a result of a series of unfortunate breaks. But Wisconsin (9-11, 1-6 Big Ten) has a chance to redeem itself Thursday night when it takes to the court against No. 8 Penn State (17-2, 7-0) in a game that marks the halfway point of the conference season.
The two squads have already squared off this season, two weeks ago exactly, when the Lady Lions embarrassed the Badgers 84-40 in a game Wisconsin would certainly like to forget. Wisconsin committed 24 turnovers and Penn State made sure the Badgers paid for their mistakes, converting them into 29 points.
“We have a smart group, but we always have to play smart,” Wisconsin assistant coach Alysiah Bond said. “Our kids play hard. We always want to make sure that we’re playing as smart as we can down the stretch.
“When we sit back and watch film, we realize that there were times where we didn’t always do that. That’s separation from winning the game and being two possessions away from winning a game.”
Wisconsin was clearly outmatched from the opening tip and had an obvious disadvantage in terms of talent, especially without the injured AnnMarie Brown and Taylor Wurtz. Playing with only nine players as a result of those two injuries and two earlier transfers, Wisconsin needed every break to go its way in the game to put itself in a position to win, but unfortunately for the Badgers, nearly everything went the wrong way.
“People wear down as the game goes on,” Wisconsin head coach Bobbie Kelsey said in reference to her short bench. “So it’s hard to sub because you got freshman over there that you’re trying to sub in and some of them not ready yet. I don’t want them to be out there looking bad. I want us to win the game.”
Along with catching a bad case of the turnover bug, Wisconsin was out-muscled on the glass and came up with 24 fewer rebounds in the game. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Badgers couldn’t find the bottom of the net, shooting a lowly 26 percent over the course of the game.
Meanwhile, the Lady Lions played a well-rounded game throughout, which was to be expected of the top-10 team and Big Ten leader. Four players scored in double figures for Penn State in the game with Nikki Greene leading all players in the game with 23 points. Wisconsin did hold Maggie Lucas nine points under her season average of 20 points per game, but that was not enough with the Lady Lions scoring with ease all night.
With only two weeks separating the teams from their last meeting, not much has changed in the line of personnel or play for both teams. Wisconsin is still on its downward slide, losing seven out of its last eight games. Penn State, on the other hand, is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, winning 11 games in a row, tied for the third longest active streak in the nation.
The Lady Lions have also won a school-record 14 consecutive Big Ten games dating back to last season.
It’s safe to say the odds will be stacked against Wisconsin when it takes to the court Thursday night, but despite the disappointing result against Penn State two weeks ago, it is by no means a sure-fire loss for the Badgers.
“The encouraging news is that [the players] don’t give up,” Kelsey said. “They keep playing hard, and we are up at half time, which probably we shouldn’t be, but we come out hard.”
One positive sign is Wisconsin’s 7-3 record at the Kohl Center, where the Badgers fare much better in nearly all aspects of their game. On offense, Wisconsin averages more than 20 points better at home, and almost all of the player and team highs have been set at home this year.
In the six meetings with Penn State at the Kohl Center, Wisconsin has emerged victorious four times, with one of the two losses coming in Kelsey’s first year as head coach last season.
Wisconsin has battled tooth-and-nail with every team that has come into the Kohl Center and kept every game close, but Thursday’s game is the first game this season in which the Badgers have hosted a ranked opponent. And it’s not just a ranked team in the Lady Lions, but one of the top teams in the nation.
With that in mind, the key to the game for Wisconsin is eliminating mistakes. Penn State has two players who average better than 13 points per game with Lucas leading the team at 20 points per game. The Lady Lions also have four other players who average more than seven points per game, so they are plenty capable of quickly turning Wisconsin mistakes into points.
The two major areas where Wisconsin will have to pay special attention will be rebounding and turnovers. Even if Wisconsin has another poor shooting performance like in the first game against Penn State, it cannot afford to turn the ball over and allow Penn State second chances. If it does so, it will most likely result in another lopsided loss.
“We just have to put two halves together,” Kelsey said.
Wisconsin will undoubtedly have to play its most balanced game of the season Thursday night, but with everything that has seemingly gone wrong, if the Badgers can get everything to go right for once, they may get the chocolate and the win they have been hoping for.