The atmosphere inside the Kohl Center is always a little bit different when Marquette comes to town.
“Instate games bring a higher level of urgency—people get more into it,” senior guard Morgan Paige said. “We will probably have a lot more fans than usual.”
When the Wisconsin Badgers (4-3) play host to the Golden Eagles (4-2) Wednesday night, fans from both sides will fill the Kohl Center, eagerly awaiting a hard-fought intrastate rivalry match.
Wisconsin enters this pivotal non-conference matchup fresh off their best win of the season: a 69-50 thumping of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
The Badgers, who rank third in the Big Ten in both scoring defense (53.4 points per game) and opponent shooting percentage (33.3 percent), continued their aggressive defensive play last Saturday, giving up just 17 points in the first half and holding the Crimson Tide to 29 points under their season average.
Senior point guard and highly-touted Louisville transfer Tiera Stephen not only swiped four steals in that game, but she also leads the team and ranks second in the Big Ten with 3.4 steals per game on the season.
“Defense is the biggest strength of my game. It always has been,” Stephen said. “As far as our team, we are always going to be the underdog. We’re probably not the quickest team or the most athletic but we can defend because defense takes nothing but heart and pride.”
This incessant effort will be fundamental in slowing down a Marquette team whose frontcourt averages a brawny 6-foot-4. Junior forward Katherine Plouffe, who is averaging a team-high 12 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, and the lone senior and forward Sarina Simmons, who hauls in an average of 5.7 rebounds per game, are two sizable reasons why the Golden Eagles are out-rebounding opponents by an average of 9.7 boards per game.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter how big you are or what size you have. You’ve got to get in there and box out,” sophomore forward Jackie Gulczynski said. “We have to box out because we don’t have the size and can’t out-jump people.”
The Badgers out-rebounded the Crimson Tide 59-38 on their way to the most rebounds for a Wisconsin squad since also tallying 59 boards all the way back on Nov. 30, 2002 against Pepperdine University.
Aside from rebounding and defense, facets of the game usually dictated by hustle and effort, the Badgers shot a season-high 43.9 percent from the field (including 6-of-12 from downtown) and received unexpected offensive contributions from a few earnest freshman guards in the game against Alabama.
“Being a freshman last year, you know that [in] your first year, you learn a lot. It’s going to take a while to become accustomed to the game and the speed,” Gulczynski said. “The freshmen this year have done a fantastic job of coming along.”
Wisconsin will be facing new challenges come Wednesday. Sophomore guard Lindsay Smith, who played in 32 games in her career, recently announced her desire to transfer.
“[Smith] felt like she wanted more playing time. It’s hard to get them all in there when they want to get in,” head coach Bobbie Kelsey said. “It wasn’t a situation where she wasn’t getting an opportunity, in my opinion. She might say something different.”
Adding to Smith’s transfer announcement was the news that senior guard and Wisconsin’s leading scorer from last year’s team Taylor Wurtz is now out indefinitely due to a lingering back injury.
“We can’t replace Taylor. We’re not going to say this one person is going to go out there and replace her,” Stephen said. “Everybody has to pick it up, knowing that her production is a major void we have to fill.”
Without Wurtz, Wisconsin’s younger players will be looking to Paige in moments of crisis on Wednesday. She is one of the few Badgers with experience in heated rivalry games.
“In my two years that I’ve been here, we haven’t won against Marquette so that’s even more motivation,” Paige said. “You want to defend your state; we’re the University of Wisconsin; we want to be able to win this game and bring that win home for our school.”