The Wisconsin women’s basketball team has had a tough season to say the least. Finishing the regular season 10-18 overall and 3-13 in the Big Ten, the Badgers will look to make a surprise run in the Big Ten tournament, which kicks off Thursday in Indianapolis.
Wisconsin enters the tournament having lost 11 of their last 12 games and riding a seven-game losing streak. The Badgers earned the No. 11 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and will face border rival and sixth-seeded Minnesota (19-11, 8-8 Big Ten) in the first round of the tournament Thursday.
Despite their struggles in Big Ten play this season, the Badgers have held their own in those losses. Five of their conference losses have been by single digits, and in 10 of their losses, the Badgers have been within three possessions with less than four minutes to play.
The Badgers’ most recent loss came last Sunday on Senior Day when they fell to Northwestern 77-73 in overtime.
UW head coach Bobbie Kelsey is looking at Thursday’s game against Minnesota as another chance for the seniors on the team to show what they are capable of after a tough loss.
“We have another opportunity to play, especially for our seniors, going out the way we did in overtime,” Kelsey said in a pre-tournament conference call. “It was a very tough loss, no question, it was disappointing. But again, you have another opportunity. So we’re just going to focus on Minnesota. We’re very familiar with them as they are with us. We’re just going to play and not worry about it. Because after this, it’s win or go home at this point.”
Minnesota is a very familiar opponent to the Badgers—the teams have already squared off twice this season. Wisconsin lost both games, which included a 53-64 loss in Minnesota on Jan. 23 and a 50-63 loss at the Kohl Center on Feb. 12.
The familiarity with Minnesota means Kelsey and her team are very much aware of the Gophers’ duo of 5-foot-9 guard Rachel Banham and 6-foot-5 forward Amanda Zahui. Both players were All-Big Ten first team selections this season, with Zahui earning freshman of the year honors. Banham leads the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 22.4 points per game, while Zahui leads the Big Ten in rebounding with an average of 11.3 boards per game. In addition to Banham’s adept scoring, Zahui also averages 15.1 points per game.
“She’s tough,” Kelsey said about Zahui. “You have to try to box her out and keep her off the boards. Because she averages a double-double, she wants the ball. Kids that kind of want it, they’re going to pursue it with everything they have. She’s a smart player. She’s very good as a freshman, so we’ll have our hands full with her.”
Wisconsin will combat Zahui with an All-Big Ten first team selection of their own. In her first season playing for the Badgers, redshirt junior transfer Michala Johnson was selected for the first All-Big Ten honor earlier this week.
In Big Ten play this season, Johnson led the conference in shooting with a 56.8 mark from the field. The 6-foot-3 forward averaged 17.1 points as well, which was good for fifth best in the conference.
“[Johnson’s] done quite well this year,” Kelsey said. “For us, she’s been awesome and I’m pleased with her play. She gives us so much out there and we can hardly have her out of the game. And she commands a double-team. When players command a double-team, that tells you a lot about their ability to affect the game.”
As Johnson forced opposing teams into using a double-team against her throughout the season, seniors Taylor Wurtz and Morgan Paige have reaped the benefits, respectively averaging 12.8 and 12 points per game this season. Wurtz and Paige hope to extend their collegiate basketball careers past Thursday with a victory over the Gophers.
In their most recent meeting with Minnesota, Wurtz paced the Badgers with 15 points and nine rebounds. In their first meeting of the season, Paige led the Badgers in scoring with 13 points.
Last season, the Badgers were the No. 11 seed and upset sixth-seeded Illinois. Wisconsin owns a 7-7 record in first-round games in the Big Ten tournament and a 10-19 overall record in 19 total appearances. Tip-off is slated for approximately 8 p.m. from Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis with the winner advancing to take on third-seeded Nebraska.
If the Badgers advance past the game against Nebraska they would most likely take on Michigan State in the semifinal game. Wisconsin is in the lower half of the tournament bracket with the No. 2 and 3 seeds, Michigan State and Nebraska, respectively, while the top portion of the bracket is highlighted by the first and fourth seeds, Penn State and Purdue.
The semifinals will take place Saturday with the final game Sunday at 1 p.m.