After losing 69–40 Thursday night to the University of Michigan (10-0, 5-0 Big Ten), the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team (3-7, 0-7 Big Ten) remains winless in conference play. The Badgers have lost their past four meetings against ranked opponents by a combined 122 points.
“We have to get better every day in practice,” Head Coach Jonathan Tsipis said in a postgame press conference. “You’ve got to come in and get extra work done. When we shoot 29% from the field … if you’re not coming in outside of practice getting extra shots, then you’re letting your teammates down. We have to be able to do that.”
In the first meeting between the two, Wisconsin fended off a Michigan onslaught for a full five minutes before surrendering an 18–3 run. This time, Michigan found no such resistance. The Wolverines opened the game with back-to-back-to-back three-pointers and the Badgers found themselves down 18–2 before they could bat an eye.
The Wolverines played calmly and with composure. Michigan big Naz Hillmon, a leading contender for national player of the year honors, faced double, triple and even quadruple teams all night long. But rather than hesitating and taking bad shots, she read the defense and found an open shooter or cut to the basket, notching a career-high seven assists in the process. Despite scoring only six points and shooting six shots, Hillmon still found ways to dominate the Badgers defense.
“She plays hard 24/7, she plays hard from start to finish,” Badgers junior forward Imani Lewis said. “She’s a great player, she’s a beast. I give her credit for everything that she does and every time we play against her we know it’s a challenge. We have to step up to the challenge and not run away from it.”
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And Hillmon had help. Maddie Nolan got the start in place of injured junior Leigha Brown and opportunistically splashed five three-pointers, scoring 21 points, beating her previous career-high of seven. Graduate student Akienreh Johnson was an absolute pest defensively and a terror attacking the basket, adding a 15 point, 11 rebounds, double-double in the destructive effort.
The Badgers now find themselves in what has to be their lowest point of the season. Their past five games have come against some of the toughest competition in the Big Ten and since the five-point loss to Minnesota, Wisconsin hasn’t been able to hang around these tough teams.
Whether it’s been a full-court press or just an active half-court defense, the Badgers have lacked the firepower, discipline and at times the desire, to compete with the Big Ten heavyweights. Michigan took advantage of the latter and held Wisconsin leading scorer Sydney Hilliard to one point on 0–7 shooting.
During a third-quarter run where the Badgers fielded a lineup of freshman and Julie Pospíšilovà, 6-foot-2-inch Kate Thompson received the ball at the free-throw line and the 5-foot-9-inch Nolan ferociously ripped the ball out of Thompson’s hands, making it clear she and the Wolverines wanted it more than the Badgers. The Wolverines had stormed ahead by 24 at this point and played defense like it was the opening tip.
Thompson was assuredly not the problem, as her aggressiveness early was one of the few bright spots for Wisconsin, but this play does act as a litmus test in comparing them with other Big Ten programs.
Michigan and the other ranked opponents the Badgers have faced aren’t just the most skillful or talented — though these factors play a significant role — they play with an acute sense of unity and pride that never waivers no matter what the scoreboard says. They prepare for each game with the proper respect a conference opponent should return, and their veterans create an environment such that the freshman understands this responsibility immediately.
If Wisconsin wants to be recognized as a post-season caliber team, there has to be a collective sense of responsibility to one another and to the program.
“In order to get [the young players] ready it starts in practice,” Lewis said. “I think we have to do a better job of teaching them the physicality, the toughness of how the Big Ten is played. It’s an eye-opener and if you’re not prepared for it you’re going to get run over. We’re running into a few brick walls because we’re getting caught by surprise. It really starts in practice and the practice has to carry over into the game.”
Too many times Wisconsin has taken the big punch but hasn’t been able to return it. One big run by each ranked opponent has been enough to demoralize the Badgers and has been a big reason why they currently sit at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. A 29-point loss on your home floor is a wake-up call.
The Badgers’ next game is against No. 9 ranked Maryland on Jan. 17 at the Kohl Center.