Eventful winter break provides excitement for Wisconsin athletics

Men’s basketball, hockey, others find success while school remains out of session

· Feb 6, 2024 Tweet

Soren Goldsmith/The Badger Herald

The University of Wisconsin student body and staff enjoyed a nearly month long winter break away from academics after the conclusion of the fall semester. On UW’s campus though, the athletic programs remained in full swing, competing at a high level seen throughout the nation.

It started with the men’s basketball program led by head coach Greg Gard, who recently eclipsed the 100-win mark in the Big Ten with a 61–59 win over the University of Minnesota. Gard emerged as the sixth fastest to win 100 conference games, doing so in 162 games. The accomplishment etched his name next to coaching legends such as Tom Izzo of Michigan State University with 143 conference wins and the Badgers’ own Bo Ryan with 140 conference wins.

Before UW’s win against their rivals, they went 6-1 over the winter break period. Shooting guard Max Klesmit caught fire as temperatures took a nosedive throughout Madison — including a 24-point performance against Northwestern University in a 71–63 win.

Klesmit’s improved 3-point shooting has been noteworthy around the team. It allowed the Badgers to get out to an unblemished 5-0 conference record. He mentioned earlier in January that it did not matter how many minutes he earned, as long as the Badgers secured a victory — showcasing the mentality of this group.

“It means they have bought in and committed to each other,” Gard said after the win against the Wildcats. “It’s a mark of a really good team when you can have different guys, different nights, you know, show up and lead us.”

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Surrounding pieces in guard AJ Storr, forward Tyler Wahl and forward Steven Crowl have elevated the offense to new heights, as UW places fourth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, as of Jan. 30.

Point guard Chucky Hepburn — who has seen his scoring numbers decrease over the year — has excelled as the facilitator of the top offense. The Omaha, Nebraska, native has elevated his work on the defensive end while taking on some of the top point guards in the NCAA — such as Northwestern’s Boo Buie or University of Minnesota’s Elijah Hawkins.

“I thought Chucky Hepburn and the way that he’s sacrificed, you know, maybe for individual scoring and how he’s led this team, you know and how he’s taking other teams’ perimeter players and done a terrific job,” Gard said about his starting point guard. “I mean he really made Boo Buie work today to have 22 shots and get 22 points.”

On the gridiron, the football team wrapped up head coach Luke Fickell’s first season at the helm with a competitive 35–31 loss against Louisiana State University in the ReliaQuest Bowl on New Year’s Day.

It was quarterback Tanner Mordecai’s best performance of the season, as the sixth year transfer was 27-for-40 with 378 yards of passing and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Will Pauling — a bright spot for the group all year long — tallied eight receptions and 143 yards, good for two touchdowns.

Unfortunately for the Badgers, the defense could not slow down NFL-bound wide receiver Brian Thomas Jr. and backup quarterback Garrett Nussmeier. Three straight sacks of Mordecai delivered by LSU’s defense sealed the deal for UW in Tampa, as the Badgers finished the 2023 season with a 7-6 overall record.

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In wrapping up the rest of the fall sports scene at UW, women’s soccer and volleyball made headlines throughout the winter break. The news began in relation to the National Women’s Soccer League draft — where UW’s star midfielder Emma Jaskaniec was selected as the 22nd overall pick by the Utah Royals.

After leading the Badgers to a 14-5-4 record and second round appearance in the NCAA Tournament — Jaskaniec joined an exclusive list of UW women’s soccer alumni to play professionally. She placed her name in with seven other athletes who have gone on to the pros after their time at the McClimon Soccer Complex — including 2017 graduate and US National Team member Rose Lavelle.

From the UW Field House, head coach Kelly Sheffield and the volleyball team got stronger over the break as well, as it was announced that setter Carly Anderson — out of the University of Montana — was transferring to UW this spring for her fifth year of college.

Standing at 5-foot-9, Anderson provides a quality skill set at the setter position and brings in two Second Team All-Big Sky awards to the table.

Transitioning back to winter athletics, both hockey programs enjoyed success throughout the end of 2023 and into the beginning of 2024. The men’s hockey program — who has taken the hockey scene by storm early on — dominated the Kwik Trip Holiday Face-Off at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee between Dec. 28 and Dec. 29.

Forward Simon Tassy notched a hat trick in the championship game against Northeastern University — leading the Badgers to a 3–0 victory. The day before versus Air Force, UW received another goal from Tassy and two from forward David Silye. Two straight 3–0 wins continued the magical season for UW — improving their overall record to 16-4 at the time.

The Badgers tacked on three more victories throughout January, highlighted by a weekend sweep against Notre Dame University. Goalkeeper Kyle McClellan added another clean sheet in front of the net against Lindenwood University — his third in the month-long break.

In LaBahn Arena, UW’s women’s hockey program made a living on both sides of the ice — specifically the offensive end. Through six games over break, the Badgers outscored their opponents 34–7.

The team took advantage of the winter break session and made the most of their time at home. Not having school for road games proved to be important for the team chemistry, too.

“The kids spend more time together doing things away from the rink than they do when school is in session,” head coach Mark Johnson said to the press Jan. 16. “So, you know you jump that forward and when you go on the road you’re on the bus together, you’re eating together, you’re doing things together.”

The attack on the offensive end has been quite balanced, as highlighted in the final win of the break over Minnesota State University, away from LaBahn Arena. The Badgers won 7–2, as seven different individuals tallied a goal in the blowout victory. Their constant success has upheld their position as the No. 2 ranked team in the nation — remaining a place behind Ohio State University who holds the No. 1 spot.

The successes of the winter break were noteworthy and while campus remained quiet during that stretch, the athletic teams rose up and created noise throughout the nation. Winter sports continue their stretch here as temperatures begin to rise in the Madison area, along with the beginning of spring sports to last until the month of May.

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