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Sunday, March 03, 2024

Badgers record first win in Jonathan Tsipis’ era behind Howard and Gregory

After suffering a plague of closeout mishaps and blowout losses to open the season, the Wisconsin Badgers scratched and clawed their way to a win Sunday evening. Taking on the Butler Bulldogs (2-2) at the Kohl Center, Wisconsin (1-3) entered desperate for their first win under head coach Jonathan Tsipis.

The Badgers learned from their previous loss at the Kohl Center, where late-game execution unravelled against Saint Francis, as the team overcame a third quarter deficit to steal a win that hung so close for three quarters.

A key factor in that comeback effort was sophomore forward Marsha Howard, who came alive in the third quarter. After falling behind by seven with a little over two minutes left in the period, the sophomore ended a Butler run with a baseline jumper. Then, Howard got back on defense and stuck her hand in a Butler passing lane for a steal that led to a jumper by freshman forward Courtney Fredrickson that got the Kohl Center crowd behind the Badgers.

“[That was] probably the play of the game,” Tsipis said. “Marsha is able to get in the passing lane, and it’s kind of a four-point swing.”

That play became the spark that the Badgers needed, as the steal, coupled with a buzzer beater from redshirt senior forward Avyanna Young to end the third, placed Wisconsin right in the thick of things, entering the fourth quarter down just two.

“Defense wins games,” Howard said. “And I feel like our team really stepped up and played perfectionist defense today.”

While the defense kept Butler at bay all game, the dormant offense finally awoke come the fourth quarter, pouring in 23 points and outscoring the Bulldogs by seven.

“The most important thing offensively in the fourth quarter was [that] we were aggressive and got to that bonus early,” Tsipis said.

The bruising dives to the rim from the likes of Young and junior guard Cayla McMorris—who took 14 and 12 free throw attempts, respectively—put Butler in foul trouble and got the Badgers’ go-to players in a rhythm. While McMorris’ day ended without a field goal on seven attempts, her work at the line kept the guard fully embedded into the Wisconsin offense. Young went a mild 2-of-7 from the floor, but converted 10 of her 14 free-throw attempts to go along with a near double-double with nine rebounds.

It was on a pair of Young free throws that the Badgers took the lead, 42-41, and did not look back for the final 6:50, driving down the lane and taking the game’s fate into their own hands.

The play of freshman guards Kendra Van Leeuwen and Gabby Gregory was also critical to UW’s success against the Bulldogs. With Van Leeuwen running the team from the point guard position, the Badgers had ample opportunities for buckets in transition, via her superb outlet passes, and in the post, via spot-on entry passes.

“That’s what you ask out of a point guard, to just have that unselfish nature.” Tsipis said.

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The freshman capped off her breakout night with a 3-pointer that erupted the Kohl Center crowd and her fellow Badgers, as Butler had been creeping back into the game late in the fourth. Gregory became the only viable 3-point option for the Badgers, as they shot a dismal 5-of-21 as a team, but the freshman connected on four of her six attempts. Her biggest attempt of the night came in a pressure-relieving three that put Wisconsin up comfortably, 49-41, in the fourth.

“It’s really important to me to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that coaches give me, and to help my teammates,” said Gregory. “[If I have to] be the burst of energy they might need … that’s really all that’s on my mind.”

With the pressure of winning their first game finally off the shoulders of the Badgers, now the focus shifts to building momentum and learning from their wins to translate into season-long success.

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The first chance to string back-to-back wins together comes Tuesday, as the Badgers travel to Milwaukee looking to treat Avyanna Young’s old team to a loss.

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