Wisconsin was down to eight players available entering their game against 6th seeded Illinois to start their Big Ten tournament play. The Badgers played like it in the first half, going down by 10 points, but used it as a wake up call and the 11th seeded Badgers took down the Fighting Illini 58-57 in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
To say this was a gritty effort is putting it rather mildly, as UW overcame a starter out with mono (replaced by a freshman making her first career start), a plethora of turnovers, foul trouble, a massive scoring drought and a rotation that was jus six deep to pull the upset.
Perhaps this upset should've been expected as the coaching staff has instilled a toughness and a "We have enough" mentality that paid off when it mattered the most.
"I think it's a credit to the assistant coaches," said head coach Bobbie Kelsey following the game. "They really – Alysiah [Bond], Stacy [Cantley] and Jayme [Callahan] — they really helped me help the kids believe that we have enough."
"That's my mantra throughout this whole year. Every time somebody goes down, we have enough, there's enough in the room. If you do what you're supposed to do, there's enough sitting here to help us win."
Leading the way for Wisconsin was guard Morgan Paige, a 3rd team All-Big Ten honoree, who had 18 points and 4 assists in the narrow victory.
It wasn't a conventional day for her or for Wisconsin to say the least as she was just 3-16 from the field in the game, but was a perfect 10-10 from the free throw line, the last two of which gave the Badgers the final margin of victory with 3.4 seconds remaining in the game. In fact it was a perfect game for the Badgers from the line as a team, going a school record 21 of 21, besting the previous high of 20 of 20 against Western Kentucky in 2007.
What was going through Paige's mind in those final 3.4 seconds?
"I know that I'm one of the better free throw shooters on the team and I had to relax and pretend like nobody else was out there," said Paige. "After I hit the first one I felt it a little less. And then the second one went down and I'm like, pick up don't foul, don't foul."
Paige wasn't the only starter with a great effort though as center Cassie Rochel went off for another double-double, her fifth of the season, scoring 10 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. Joining Paige and Rochel as a double digit scorer was forward Jacki Gulczynski who had 15 points and 8 rebounds on the day.
The game started off in back-and-forth fashion as Wisconsin couldn't seem to solve the buzz defense of Illinois and the Illini couldn't stay out of foul trouble. However, with the score at 24-20 to the Illini advantage with 6:53 left in the 1st half things would go south for the Badgers – as in they wouldn't score another point the rest of the way kind of south- heading to the locker room down 30-20 and staring some ugly facts in the face.
UW shot just 26% from the field and committed 10 turnovers in the half and Morgan Paige was 0 for the field but 6 for 6 from the free throw line.
Instead of giving up after their scoreless streak nearly reached 9 minutes in total with the start of the 2nd half, the Badgers figured out how to beat the buzz trap defense and began playing with confidence. Well that and Morgan Paige and Jacki Gulczynski took over offensively. Paige scored 12 of her 18 points in the 2nd half, while Gulczynski had 13 of her 15 points in the 2nd stanza to really lead the Badgers back.
Wisconsin was on such a role that they went from down 10 at the half to up 10 at 54-44 with 5:59 left in the game, only to see a case of the turnovers come back to bite them as the Illini went on a 7-0 run fueled by a turnover, one of 25 on the day for UW, and some bad offensive and defensive play by Wisconsin as the score stood at 54-51.
Illinois proceeded to continue their run, eventually taking a 57-54 lead with just 42.4 seconds remaining in the game. However, despite visible exhaustion the Badgers didn't give up the fight and they used their not so secret weapon – free throws – to garner the victory.
Freshman Tessa Cinchy stepped up after being fouled on the inbounds pass and hit two free throws to make it 57-56, but that was just the beginning of a big time ending for the Badgers.
With just 10.1 seconds left Wisconsin took a timeout after crossing half court and set up a final play. The ball would be in the hands of who else but Morgan Paige as she went into the lane for a layup only to be fouled with 3.4 seconds remaining. Wisconsin had been perfect from the line to that point and Paige stepped up and calmly knocked down the final two points of the game and cemented a legacy soon not to be forgotten that's for sure.
This win is even more impressive in the face of 25 team turnovers for the game, but credit UW's defensive effort as the Illini turned those turnovers into only 26 points. It's safe to say things could've been a lot worse and Wisconsin was able to counter the 13 point advantage the Illini had there with advantages from the free throw line and in the paint as well.
Wisconsin also was helped by a big time, 41-29, advantage on the boards in allowing them to limit second chance points and take some of the sting off of turnovers as well.
Overall four of the five starters played all forty minutes of action in this one and it'll need to be a night of instant recovery as the Badgers will take on 3rd seeded Purdue tomorrow at approximately 2pm (25 minutes following conclusion of the 11:30 game). The game will be televised on BTN for our viewing pleasure.