Wisconsin junior guard Tessa Cichy is simply not familiar with the concept of backing down.
Since the time she first picked up a basketball during her elementary school days, little has deterred her motivation to become a starter on a Division I basketball program.
Despite being named a Miss Minnesota Basketball top five finalist coming out of high school, nothing was guaranteed for Cichy as a freshman walk-on in the 2012-13 season for the Badgers.
As expected for her situation, she made a minimal impact on the court during her first year, averaging just 13 minutes per game and remaining primarily on the bench for the Badgers.
Teammate and senior forward Cassie Rochel, however, noticed Cichy’s uncharacteristically high confidence during her first practices for a player with little on-court experience. Rochel saw a sense of tenacity in Cichy that would give her the potential to transform into an impact player.
“I remember clear as day how everyone hated going against her,” Rochel said. “She’s tough, she’s gritty and she does the little things right. In practice when they needed her, they put her on the scout team because she would get us really ready for our opponents.”
As a firsthand account to her progression over her years as a Badger, Wisconsin head coach Bobbie Kelsey said he believes Cichy’s dedication to the little things have helped her overcome competition that has commonly been more athletically gifted at the collegiate level.
“In spite of her maybe not being the highest jumper or the quickest player, her smarts make up for some of that. She understands angles and how to get in a spot,” Kelsey said.
As Cichy reflected on her Wisconsin career up to this point, she noted most importantly the moment she first arrived on campus and stepped on the court, fully aware of the challenge looming in front of her. It didn’t take long, however, for her to feel at home with the team.
“Once I got through that first practice, that first game, I was kind of like, ‘Well, I can do this,'” Cichy said. “It’s just basketball. It’s not this crazy thing to be scared of.”
Following the graduation of senior guards Morgan Paige and Taylor Wurtz last season, the door finally opened in the 2014-15 season for Cichy to showcase her aggressiveness on the court for the first time as a regular starter. In 20 starts this season, she has not disappointed, averaging just less than nine points per game, including a career-high 25 against Iowa earlier this month in the highest-attended home game at the Kohl Center for the women’s basketball team since 2010.
Having two seasons to prepare for the call-up, Cichy said she expressed no hesitation with diving right in and filling the shoes, especially after the loss of Michala Johnson, the team’s leading scorer who suffered a torn ACL back in December.
“I’ve never been intimidated really by any situation,” Cichy said. “It was my shot, so I’m very blessed to have been given that opportunity. I think I’ve just been ready for it, and I’ve embraced it.”
Cichy has now played all 40 minutes in Wisconsin’s last three games against Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. Kelsey said that Cichy’s confidence and court awareness are only getting better with experience.
“She knows her role. She doesn’t try to do too much,” Kelsey said. “Sometimes you wonder about some of the things she’s doing out there, but when you have confidence in a player, you can live with some of the mistakes because you know some of the other things she’s going to give you outweigh one or two mistakes here or there.”
Kelsey noted Cichy’s preparation habits as one key factor other players on this Wisconsin team should take note of as well.
“When your number is called, be ready, because if a coach calls your number and you’re not ready, your likelihood of being called again is not going to be great,” Kelsey said. “I think she was ready when her number was called, and she hasn’t relinquished that spot.”
A less noticeable aspect of Cichy’s game that Kelsey found to be refreshing is her willingness to change up her playing style and adapt to different situations as a game progresses.
While Cichy’s aggressiveness naturally gives her a score-first mentality, Kelsey said Cichy always prioritizes whatever the team needs out of her the most.
“It’s her ability to believe that she can make something happen whether we score or are defending or rebounding,” Kelsey said. “She does a little bit of everything. If she’s not hitting shots, she’s going to find another way to help the team, and you wish everybody was like that, but it’s not.”
For Cichy personally, she never imagined that she would make it this far, but is grateful for every step along the way.
“My goal was never to go to [Division I]. My goal was to be the best I could be,” Cichy said. “Whatever came along with that I was happy about. I was just blessed to have that opportunity to go D-1, and I’m very happy with where I’m at.”