The University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team (3-2, 0-2 Big Ten) plays every game like it’s their last. With the difficulties of maneuvering through COVID-19, they have no other choice. Having multiple games canceled — including a home game against Nebraska Dec. 22 — the Badgers have defaulted to playing with their hearts on their sleeves game-in and game-out.

“One thing I tell [the team], play every game like it’s your last,” junior forward Imani Lewis said. “Everything is in unforeseen circumstances and we know that.”

Their most recent outing exemplified this. After not playing for six days, the Badgers faced Valparaiso (4-3, 0-0 MVC), a team that had already beaten Illinois and Purdue. Facing this challenge, Wisconsin produced its most passionate performance.

Wisconsin had built up a first-half lead on the back of a tenacious zone defense and quick decisions in transition. Wisconsin Head Coach Jonathan Tsipis utilized his small-ball lineup, replacing starting center Sara Stapleton with either Tara Stauffacher or Alex Luehring and moving Lewis to the center position for much of the game.

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The zone, which had been tested throughout the early parts of the season, seems to be a mainstay, especially after the three times they ran a man defense, which resulted in a Valparaiso score each time. The combination of the Badgers’ length on the wing and depleted numbers makes it a natural decision, but Tsipis’ team has fully bought into the defensive scheme.

“We are a lanky team,” sophomore guard Julie Pospíšilovà said. “It’s much easier for us to play zone and find the ball.”

Wisconsin was able to wreak havoc in the passing lanes and disrupt open shooters, a dangerous combination going forward.

A key to the Badgers was shutting down Valpo leading scorers Grace White and Carie Weinman. The duo entered the game averaging over 31 points per game between them but were held scoreless through the first two frames. The Badgers went into the half up 42–35 and looked poised to add to the lead after the break.

Valparaiso Head Coach Mary Evans’ squad swung the ball with intention in the second half, breaking down the Wisconsin zone and tiring out the Badgers in the process. The ball movement resulted in 14 made 3-pointers on 42 attempts by the Crusaders.

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Among them, a buzzer-beating three by guard Shay Frederick, who scored a career-high 27 points and stood at the helm of the Valparaiso comeback attempt. Her ability to break down the zone and find open shooters forced the Badgers to scramble defensively.

Sloppy passing, ineffective post touches and foul trouble defined the third quarter for the Badgers’ offense. The resulting fourth quarter was a bloodbath.

The contestants traded runs throughout. White came alive in the fourth quarter, scoring the first seven Valparaiso points and initiating key scoring bursts that twice nullified a Wisconsin lead. The Badgers got their punches by way of a career night from Pospíšilovà, who scored a career-high 23 points on 13 shots and terrorized the Valparaiso offense.

Back-to-back 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the first to tie the game and the second a banked-in shot to take the lead with 1:21 to go, put a cherry on top of her career night.

“The banks are open right now in the Czech Republic, I think,” Tsipis said.

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“I knew we had to make a shot, I just shot it and knew it would go in,” Pospíšilovà said. “It’s just natural for me.”

But Valparaiso’s Shay Frederick’s night would not be over yet. As a Greensville, Wisconsin native, coming to the Kohl Center always means a little bit more, and Frederick delivered.

Two of the three possessions of main defense for the Badgers — the ones which proved unsuccessful — came in the last 50 seconds of the game. Frederick responded with consecutive layups, the latter of which sent the game to overtime.

Overtime was all Badgers. More specifically, it was all Lewis. The most veteran Badger on the team — playing in her 67th consecutive game as a member of the Wisconsin women’s basketball team — dominated the extra period. Her rebounding was aggressive and her paint presence was overwhelming, and her body language reflected it.

Lewis complimented the Badgers’ excellent guard play with 19 points and 11 rebounds. None more important than her three overtime baskets and four boards in the game’s final period.

“The one thing I told our team was that we were going to win” said Lewis, “Just play, just be relaxed, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and just give everything you have. That’s it.”

And to wrap up the affair, Sydney Hilliard — who continued her onslaught of a sophomore campaign with 25 points and nine assists — hit the dagger, a pull-up elbow jumper that gave the Badgers a seven-point lead with 17 seconds left to go.

This game is much more important than just a non-conference win. It proves that this Wisconsin women’s basketball team has the technical chops to compete with anyone and the intangible grit to push through adversity. Yes, the runs by Valpo were concerning, but not many teams can launch it from deep like the Crusaders can. Nonetheless, the Badgers passed the gut-check.

Wisconsin tips off next against Michigan in the Crisler Center Dec. 31.