The Wisconsin women’s basketball team has played the best teams in the Big Ten right to the wire throughout the season but have yet to come away with that signature victory. Thursday’s game provided the Badgers yet another chance to knock off an upper-echelon Big Ten team by way of No. 23 Michigan State. And much like they have all season, Wisconsin once again played tough but couldn’t overcome six Spartan’s who scored in double-figures and fell to Michigan State 76-66 at the Kohl Center.
Throughout the game Wisconsin (10-16, 3-11 Big Ten) struggled to contain the inside presence of the Spartans’(18-8, 10-3) frontcourt that featured 6-foot-4 forward Becca Mills and 6-foot-3 forward Annalise Pickrel. Mills led the team in scoring with 15 points while Pickrel added 12.
Another 6-foot-3 forward, Jasmine Hines, came off the bench and chipped in ten of her own points. The Michigan State bigs were instrumental in the Spartans dominating the rebounding total, 34-25, with 16 of those coming off the offensive glass.
Guards, Branndais Agee and Tori Jankoska rounded out the double-figure scoring for the Spartans, adding ten and 14 points each.
Badger head coach Bobbie Kelsey tried switching up defenses throughout the game to stop the Spartans scoring attack, deploying a series of zones and full-court presses. However, with Michigan State having so many players who can score, the changeup in defenses often went to no avail.
“We tried to go with our zone for a little bit, but then one or two [players] got loose,” Kelsey said. “But you know they just have some great athletes over there. There’s a reason why they’re ranked in the country. But when you have big Hines and Mills in there; we don’t have that kind of punch to hold them off.”
What the Badgers did have to throw at the Spartans to combat their size inside was redshirt junior forward Michala Johnson. Johnson entered the game as the Badgers’ leading scorer but was held to just four points in the first half. She finished the game with a team-high 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting.
Johnson was joined in the scoring column with senior guard Taylor Wurtz who had 15 points and junior Jacki Gulczynski who had 11. Sophomore Nicole Bauman chipped in eight points and senior Morgan Paige finished with nine points.
The Spartans weren’t going to let Johnson dominate like she did in their first meeting this season. Johnson scored 26 points on 12-of-16 shooting Jan. 30 in the Badgers’ first meeting with the Spartans this season.
Michigan State used their guards to double-team Johnson, forcing turnovers and preventing her from scoring in the first half. The Spartans scored 21 points off of 14 Badger turnovers throughout the game.
“It really just wasn’t their bigs that were stopping me from scoring,” Johnson said. “They were double-teaming me. They had a guard on the backside. In the first half maybe I was a little bit hesitant. I wasn’t getting the ball as much or wasn’t scoring as much. In the second half I just had to turn it up a notch.”
Despite losing to their second ranked opponent in a row, the Badgers kept the game close throughout. They found themselves down by eight, 39-31 to start the second half, but rallied to cut the Michigan State lead to four, five times in the second half. Following two Johnson free throws, the Badgers were down just 70-66 with 1:53 remaining. But a couple of decisive offensive rebounds and free throws by the Spartans put to rest any hope of a comeback for Wisconsin.
Although they haven’t been able to pull out these close games, Kelsey said she’s encouraged by the runs her team has put up in the second halves of games this season. She knows her players aren’t giving up anytime soon.
“The good thing about these kids is that they don’t give, they don’t hang their head,” Kelsey said. “I’m sad for them because we’re trying everything but we’re just not getting the results. It’s not for a lack of effort or a lack of passion or want. For whatever reason, we can’t get that one little push. We just have to keep trying.”
Much like Kelsey, Wurtz believes that these close games have given her and her teammates the confidence that they can play with anyone in the highly competitive Big Ten. They’ll need that confidence as Big Ten regular season play wraps up and they head to the Big Ten tournament.
“We can play with any team in this conference,” Wurtz said. “We just have to figure out a way to close it. And like coach said, we just have to get back to practice, pay attention to details, like boxing out. It’s just those little things that we’re not executing. But we’ll figure it out. We have to get to practice and keep working hard.”