The Badgers (17-3 Big Ten, 25-4 overall) are headed to their fourth straight NCAA Tournament as the No. 3 seed, the highest seeding in program history, behind the coaching of Kelly Sheffield and the leadership of senior Lauren Carlini.
The two came to Madison at the same time back in 2013 and led the team to a national championship appearance, and they hope to one-up that accomplishment with a national title in their final year together. Out of their four years together, this has been their best team to date, reaching the No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history. Part of what has made this team special is their effort down the final stretch of the season and into the tournament.
“Previous years, it’s been trying to pull people along, like ‘come on, come on, let’s get better here,’” Carlini said. “I think we came really focused and working hard, and we have the right mindset this week going into Howard and potentially our second round match.”
The Badgers will host at least the first two rounds of the tournament in the UW Field House, taking on Howard (12-0 MEAC, 26-5 overall) in their first match on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., giving this special class of seniors at least one more chance to play in front of their home crowd.
“We know that we were going to get at least the first and second rounds here, but to be possibly playing her for four more matches, which we are hoping to be, is going to be great,” Carlini said. “I’m just imagining the feeling now of celebrating going to a final four in front of our home crowd.”
Getting to another Final four won’t be an easy road, but Sheffield believes the difficult regular season schedule will help his team out in the tournament.
“I think teams that go through the Big Ten schedule, I think traditionally they’ve played really well,” Sheffield said. “I think you go through this conference and you get callused. It’s a meat grinder, and if you can get through healthy, mentally and physically, there is this toughness that builds up that really helps the teams in this league.”
If UW defeats Howard on Thursday, they would play either Marquette (13-5 Big East, 23-8 overall) or Washington State (11-9 Pac-12, 21-11 overall) in the second round at the Field House on Friday. If they make it into the third round of the tournament—which they are expected to do—they will likely face one of two teams they beat earlier in the year, Kansas State or Ohio State, both of which the Badgers swept this season.
What could give Wisconsin an edge over their opponents is the experience of Carlini and other seniors in making it to the national championship four years ago.
“Knowing what type of pressure we’re going to be under, what type of fan base we will be playing in front of, and just knowing that the caliber of these matches are going to be so high and so intense,” Carlini said. “Handling our emotions, I think that is one thing that experience will definitely help with.”
If the Badgers once again make it to the national championship game under Carlini and Sheffield they will, again, possibly face two familiar foes. In the quarterfinal they could face Florida (16-2 SEC, 26-3 overall), the team that knocked Wisconsin out of last year’s tournament and Minnesota (17-3 Big Ten, 25-4 overall) which beat them twice in 2016.
This senior class is the first that Sheffield recruited to Wisconsin and it would mean something special to him to send them out on top.
“Those guys are people that stay awake at night dreaming of being the last man standing,” Sheffield said. “When you have people that you care about and they have big dreams, you want to do everything you can to reach those dreams.”
While this tournament will mark the end of the Lauren Carlini era at Wisconsin, Sheffield plans to make the most of the rest of her time at the program.
“She’s not only the best player, but the best practice player; she has this ‘bring it’ mentality that she just wants to be as great as she can possibly be. She has meant an awful lot to this program and she has meant a lot to me,” Sheffield said. “I’m not going to spend one ounce of energy thinking about what life is going to be like without her; I’m going to try and maximize every minute I’ve got with her.”