The first border battle of the season ended in disappointment for the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team (3-4, 0-4 Big Ten) as the Badgers fell in overtime to the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-4, 1-3 Big Ten) 88-83.
After getting thoroughly stomped at No. 16 Michigan on Thursday, the Badgers came out of the gate with an abundance of energy that seemed largely directionless until halftime. Minnesota’s intense ball pressure turned the Badgers’ eagerness to make a play into turnovers.
Dribbling off feet, trying to make a move before catching the ball, skip passes instead of pull-up jumpers and overall sloppy passing was commonplace in the first quarter.
Turnovers plagued the Badgers all night. The 21 forced by the pressing Minnesota defense is the second-highest mark of the season in the category, the highest (27) coming against a Rutgers team that deploys a schematically different, though similarly intense, press.
In a conference with some of the stingiest defenses in the country, learning from and not repeating mistakes born out of pressing defenses will be key to breaking the Badgers’ conference struggles.
Foul trouble didn’t help the Badgers either. Two quick fouls called on Imani Lewis to end the first quarter forced Wisconsin into a series of adjustments that controlled how the Badgers could play the rest of the way.
Often alternating between a straight-up man defense and a 2-3 zone, dependent on the foul situation of whatever five were on the court for Head Coach Jonathan Tsipis’ squad, the Badgers couldn’t find a definitive defensive rhythm in the first half. Minnesota guards Jasmine Powell and Sara Scalia took advantage, scoring 19 of their combined 22 before the halftime whistle.
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One player was particularly dominant for the Gophers. French forward Kadi Sissoko finished the game with a modest 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, but her impact extended far beyond the stat sheet. Sissoko’s gravity in the middle of Wisconsin’s 2-3 zone pulled the wing defenders toward her, and Minnesota made the right basketball decision from there.
When Sissoko got the ball in the middle, she consistently picked apart the Badgers by driving the ball or just making the right read off of the help defense.
Despite foul issues and turnover margin, the Badgers still shot over 56% from the field in the first half and a jaw-dropping 63.6% in the second. A big reason for this being the electric guard play the Badgers received from Sydney Hilliard and the steady hand of Julie Pospíšilovà.
Hilliard scored 10 of her 21 points on a 5/5 shooting spree during the second quarter, keeping the Badgers above water as the Gophers rained jumpers from all over the court.
“[My mentality] is still to be in attack mode, but always to be ready to kick the ball,” Hilliard said in the post-game press conference. “I’m looking to go downhill and find shooters.”
The Badgers came out of the half with precision in what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it. Pospíšilovà and Hilliard consistently attacked off of action at the top of the key and worked well off of each other’s spacing.
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Hilliard was in attack mode all quarter, consistently looking for her shot off the offense’s main action, creating for others as well in the process. Lewis did a great job taking up space and rolling off her screens. Defensively the same combination of man and zone that had discombobulated the Badgers in the first half became the engine for the comeback
“We came out with great energy,” Tsipis said about his team’s halftime adjustments. “It was important to start chipping away. I think you see some teams try to get it all at once, we were pretty methodical. The man really helped us out in the second half.”
Pospíšilovà had arguably her best game for Wisconsin. Her 28 points mark a career-high, and her five three-pointers mark the most made by a Badger this season. Her box score contributions look great, but her impact on the court extended outside field goals made.
A timely steal-and-score sequence to open the fourth quarter set the tone for the remainder of the game. Twice she delivered the dime to tie the game in the clutch, the latter a beautiful mid-air adjustment to find a cutting Lewis for the bucket that sent the game to overtime.
“When [Pospíšilovà’s] confident and ready to shoot the ball she’s really good,” Hilliard said about her backcourt partner’s career night. “She helps our team a lot more when she’s looking to be aggressive and looking to shoot the ball.”
In their matchup against Valparaiso two weeks ago to the date, the Badgers scored the first seven points in overtime, effectively cementing a Wisconsin win. But, in an act of what-goes-around-comes-around, it would be Minnesota that scored the first seven points of the overtime period. Wisconsin nearly took the lead off of a broken play with 30 seconds remaining.
After falling to the ground, Hilliard found Estella Moschkau open on the wing. Moschkau hit a three that would’ve given the Badgers an 83-82 lead with 23 seconds to go and momentum heading into what would have been the game’s final possession. This would have added to Hilliard’s assist tally of 11, a career-high and her second career double-double.
But before Hilliard made the pass, Tsipis’ coaching instinct kicked in and he called a timeout to prevent a possible traveling violation with Hilliard on the ground. The only problem being that the Badgers had no more timeouts to take. Wisconsin was charged an administrative technical foul — two free throws and the ball turned over to the opposition — and weren’t able to recover from there.
“As a coach, my primary responsibility is to put our team, try to put every individual and then collectively, in the best position to win and I didn’t do that tonight,” Tsipis said during the post-game press conference. “We scratched and clawed our way back in the second half …Still a lot of Big Ten basketball to play and we’ve got to get ready because obviously Northwestern is a very good team and we’re excited for another opportunity, but we know that every single game in this league is going to be really difficult.”
The painful loss marks their fourth conference loss of the season, and the schedule doesn’t get any kinder. Starting on Wednesday with No. 15 Northwestern at home, the Badgers face five ranked opponents in their next six games in conference play.