Another pressing Big Ten defense, another loss for the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team (3-5, 0-5 Big Ten). This time, at the hands of No. 22 Northwestern (5-2, 3-2 Big Ten), Wisconsin lost 80–55 in another lopsided performance against a ranked Big Ten opponent.
The same issues that plagued the Badgers in their previous matchup against Minnesota reared their heads. At the forefront of these issues — the inability to beat an aggressive press and string together clean offensive possessions. Northwestern’s pressure forced 20 Wisconsin turnovers, with 17 of those coming directly off of steals.
One has to wonder whether inexperience in the ball handler department has something to do with struggling against pressing defenses. Wisconsin has turned the ball over 20+ times on three different occasions this season. All three of those opponents — Rutgers, Minnesota and Northwestern — have senior leadership at the guard and wing positions with defensive enforcers to boot.
“You can’t put balls in front of them,” Wisconsin Head Coach Jonathan Tsipis said in a post-game press conference. “There are a lot of statistics where Northwestern is in the top five whether it’s individual steals, team steals, they average about 15 more shot attempts per game just from turning people over. But we have to have willing people who are going to catch passes and flash to the basketball … They’ve got to want the basketball and the guards have got to get it back so that we could get into our offense.”
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After combining for 49 points, 16 assists and 13 rebounds in a brilliant performance against Minnesota, the sophomore backcourt of Sydney Hilliard and Julie Pospíšilovà were flustered by Northwestern’s intensity. The two combined for 12 points, 4 assists and 11 turnovers in the defeat.
A large part of the duo’s struggle was the 2020 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Veronica Burton bullying all Wisconsin ball handlers in her defensive radius. Northwestern Head Coach Joe McKeown also drew up a game plan specifically designed to nullify what both guards do best.
Every time Hilliard or Pospíšilovà looked to attack the paint, a wall of two or three defenders blocked off their angles. When trying to break the press, both faced constant double teams after crossing the half-court line and Northwestern’s help was always in the right place to play free safety and intercept any inaccurate passes.
“[Hilliard and Pospíšilovà] both played last year, no one’s going to feel sorry for them,” Tsipis said. “But Estella [Moschkau]’s got to help, Halle [Douglass] has to be ready to help, the post players have to be strong with the basketball.”
Though the final score looks ugly, the Badgers stayed competitive through the first 14 minutes of the game. The 2-3 zone — born out of the limited amount of bodies available to Tsipis to start the season — was organized and reacted quickly to the Wildcats offensive motions. The Badgers also opened the game with three straight 3-pointers, using Northwestern’s tenacity against them to find open looks for shooters.
But it was only a matter of time before the Wildcats’ Lindsey Pulliam took matters into her own hands. Though the media’s preseason Big Ten Player of the Year only scored 14 points on 14 shots, her feel for when to take over and close the door on the Badgers was contagious. The senior guard went on an eight-point scoring burst — all on jumpers — to ignite what would be a 27–4 run in the second quarter.
This run effectively ended the game, though the Badgers were able to play the Wildcats pretty much even in the second half. While the performance of the freshman has to be encouraging for Tsipis, this game is one Wisconsin would like to move on from quickly.
Halle Douglass got her longest run of the season and excelled as a tertiary ball-handler and playmaker. After shaking off some nerves to start the game, Brooke Schramek showed flashes of a craftiness that will go a long way in getting the Badgers out of their conference rut. Center Kate Thompson had her best offensive performance with nine points by looking for her shot in the post and being physical enough to get good looks on the inside.
“I thought it was good that we got time to play together,” Thompson said. “Just getting the chemistry and feel of playing in a real game with the other freshman was really fun. To get the feel of playing against a Big Ten team like Northwestern was a really good experience for us.”
In the scariest moment of the loss, Hilliard dove for a loose ball while down 24 points and when the dust cleared the team’s leading scorer was holding her right elbow and looked to be suffering from an injury.
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No official status has been given in terms of the type and severity of the injury, but this team has relied on Hilliard’s all-conference level of offensive play all season and losing her for any amount of time can drastically change their standing heading into the Big Ten Tournament in early March.
The Badgers have another ranked Big Ten opponent next on the slate. They will be playing No. 19 Indiana Thursday, Jan. 10 at Assembly Hall.