The seconds wound down. The shot went up. The horn sounded. The crowd gasped in anxious anticipation, and then the ball fell off the rim, as the Kohl Center flew into a frenzy.
That’s how the final five seconds of the Wisconsin women’s basketball game played out Thursday night as the Badgers defeated No. 7 Penn State 63-61 at the Kohl Center in improbable, heart-pounding fashion.
Just two weeks ago the Lady Lions (17-3, 7-1 Big Ten) routed Wisconsin 84-40 in State College, Pa., but with the embarrassing loss in the back of their minds, the Badgers fought with every ounce of energy they had and came up with the stunning upset to end Penn State’s 11-game winning streak.
The first time the two teams met, Wisconsin failed to do much of anything right, turning the ball over 24 times and coming up 24 rebounds short of the Lady Lions, while shooting just 26 percent from the field.
But, that Wisconsin team wasn’t the group that showed up Thursday night.
“Coming around this game we really followed our game plan,” forward Jacki Gulczynski said. “Our coaches had us set with what we were going to do. We just really executed this time around a lot better.”
Wisconsin jumped out to an early 8-2 advantage, and while most people wondered when the Lady Lions would take the lead for good, Wisconsin kept chugging along.
But after leading for almost the entire first half, Wisconsin went on a four minute, 43-second scoring drought to end the half and Penn State capitalized to take a 33-29 lead into halftime.
The two teams battled back and forth throughout the entire second half with the lead changing hands eight different times. And just as it appeared Penn State was about to pull away in the usual second-half script for Wisconsin, the Badgers countered with a comeback of their own.
Trailing 46-40, the Badgers outscored Penn State 10-4 to pull even at 50-50 with 7:33 left to play in the game. Wisconsin then took the lead with just over six minutes remaining, but the lead changed five more times over the rest of the game.
With just under a minute to play, Morgan Paige – who scored a career-high 33 points for the Badgers – nailed a cold-blooded three from the top of the key to give Wisconsin the lead.
“The last one, I thought it was short when I let it go, but it was straight on and it went in and the place erupted,” Paige said. “I knew it was big and I knew it was crucial at that time.”
On the ensuing possession, the Lady Lions’ Alex Bentley stayed calm and hit a mid-range jumper to tie the game again, this time at 61.
After a timeout by head coach Bobbie Kelsey with just a few seconds remaining in the game, Paige passed the ball to Cassie Rochel, who pulled up for a baseline jumper.
Although the initial attempt failed to fall, redshirt senior Tiera Stephen collected the rebound – her 11th of the game – and banked the ball in on the putback to give the Badgers the lead for good.
Along with Paige’s 33 points, Gulczynski had 16 of her own – the 14th game in a row she has scored in double figures – and freshman Dakota Whyte played a vital role off the bench despite not making a mark in the box score.
“She stepped up this year and you saw Dakota step up a little bit in this big game,” Kelsey said. “Pretty much Dakota saved us really. We did give Dakota credit for this. Sometimes it’s not in the stats, it’s just a player making a difference and helping out in the intangible ways.”
The win for Wisconsin was only its second of the conference season, but the meaning it has reaches far beyond just another tally in the win column.
It was the Badgers’ first win over a top-10 team in nearly five years and quite possibly the biggest win for Kelsey in her tenure as the head coach of Wisconsin.
After losing two key players and seven out of the last eight games up to that point, Wisconsin was finally able to stare adversity in the eyes and respond with a win.
“It means a lot for us; I’m not going to downplay it,” Kelsey said. “It’s huge for our confidence. It’s huge for our program to beat a very highly-ranked team. A lot of people say that we don’t have anything. We have plenty.”
“They could either fold or they could buck up and do it and that’s what they do.”