Head Coach of the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team Jonathon Tsipis entered the locker room Wednesday night only to be met with a water bottle shower and a sea of wide grins from his team.

And it was no surprise — after knocking off No. 12 ranked Ohio State University (12-3, 8-3 Big Ten), the win felt like a culmination of all the Badgers had built over the course of the season.

The Badgers (5-13, 2-13) have struggled to find an identity all season long. The 2020-2021 season, brushed over the backdrop of a pandemic, started with Wisconsin routinely dominating the glass and attacking the paint. Going undefeated in the non-conference slate, the Badgers seemed destined as a ground-and-pound team relying on interior fortitude to grind out wins.

But consistent foul trouble and COVID-19 precautions made player availability tricky, forcing the Badgers to routinely wane out the identity they had established during the non-conference schedule. 

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And then Wednesday, during the biggest upset of the Big Ten season, the Badgers went back to what got them to a 3-1 start.

Imani Lewis and Sara Stapleton proved unstoppable as Wisconsin defeated the 12th ranked Ohio State Buckeyes 75-70. Lewis racked up a career-high 27 points and finished with 15 rebounds, securing her conference-leading ninth double double.

Despite a modest showing in the box score, Stapleton had her best game of the season. Her confidence in the post and tenacity on the offensive glass — six of her 10 boards came on the offensive end — gave the Badgers an inside presence which perfectly complemented the terrifying Lewis.

“It feels great,” Lewis said. “The hard work is going to pay off. I’m excited about the win — I’m so happy about the win — but I’m so happy that we’re now witnessing our hard work pay off.”

Lewis would simply not be denied. She played the game at her speed, seemingly following a strategy that would maximize the Badgers size advantage. It started with some early jumpers — including her first three pointer of the season — to loosen up the defense.

The second half was pure attack mode. Lewis consistently beat her marker off the dribble, power dribble in the paint — maybe throw in a drop-step for good measure — to finish the play with either a bucket or a chance for two at the free throw line. Her performance was the single best by a Badger this season.

“She got to the line, she did a great job on the glass,” Tsipis said. “And I think our team feeds off of that energy … throughout the game we were the team with more energy, more enthusiasm.”

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Lewis was the face of what the Badgers had wanted to do all season long, but defensive contributions across the board cemented the smash-mouth mentality Tsipis so reveres.

Stapleton and freshman forward Brooke Schramek — who earned crunch time minutes after Stapleton ran into foul trouble down the stretch — combined for four blocks while Julie Pospíšilovà had her best defensive performance of the season.

Pospíšilovà looked comfortable in her role. When not asked to be one of the Badger’s primary scorers, she flourishes. Though she still needed to curb her turnover rate, she contributed to the rebounding with eight boards, chipped in five assists and swallowed Ohio State guards Maddison Greene and Jacy Sheldon defensively. Her three steals and three blocks set the tone for the rest of the team.

The Badgers ultimately won the game with sheer will-power and a refusal to relent the lead. Whenever the Buckeyes even tried to sniff out a run, a Sidney Hilliard slice-and-dice three point play or an Estella Mosckau jumper put the team at ease.

Though by no means Hilliard’s most dominant game of the season, she hit the four biggest free throws of the night. A pair with 3:08 to go after OSU had tied the game 66-66 redeemed a three point lead, and the daggers with 34 seconds left put the game out of reach.

The Badgers have found an identity centered around the dominance of Imani Lewis and the frontcourt rotation, reinforced by the fortitude of the guards. This win may just provide the confidence Wisconsin needs to achieve Big Ten redemption.