A fluid, flawless performance it was not, but Wisconsin enjoyed its strongest all-around game of the season in earning its first Big Ten win of the year and of the first of coach Lisa Stone's tenure with the Badgers.
Wisconsin (6-7 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) led from the opening tip Tuesday and never relinquished the lead, holding off Illinois rallies at the end of each half on its way to a 66-57 victory.
"Our team has worked very, very hard for this first ‘W' and hopefully this is one of many to come," Stone said.
The Badgers, who have struggled all season to knock down shots, connected at key moments throughout the game, dominated the glass at both ends of the floor and played well defensively for most of the contest.
Rich hit 7 of 14 shots, including 4 of 6 three-point baskets and senior center Lello Gebisa added 11 points and five blocks.
Ashbaugh's replacement in the starting lineup, sophomore Jordan Wilson, led Wisconsin with nine rebounds and did a solid job defensively against Illini center Cindy Dallas, who led Illinois with 14 points and a game-high 13 rebounds, but shot just 4-for-12.
The Badgers entered the game among the Big Ten's worst in every offensive category—averaging just 57.2 points per game on 39 percent shooting, with 18.3 turnovers per contest.
Tuesday, though, Wisconsin tied a season low with 12 turnovers and claimed its second-highest point total of the season—the first greater than 60-point performance since a season-high 76 in a home win over Iowa State Dec. 7.
Wisconsin did however, shoot just 42.6 percent, and went cold for significant stretches. The Badgers, though, hit big shots and poured it on enough to win.
Perhaps more importantly, the team's defense, which also suffered breakdowns that nearly cost Wisconsin the game, was very strong for the most part, holding Illinois 13 points below its season average, flustering the Illini with a pesky 2-3 zone for most of the first half, and strong man-to-man play in the second stanza. Typically a quick-shooting team, Illinois was forced into three shot-clock violations.
"They are very much drive-oriented," Stone said of using the zone. "I thought for us to make them have to shoot over the top of us. Our zone was effective."
Illinois entered the game averaging 41.8 rebounds, the most in the Big Ten, but the Badgers claimed a gaudy 41-29 advantage on the glass and held the Illini to just nine offensive rebounds.
Midway through the first half the Badgers hit four consecutive shots in a 9-2 run, pulling out to a 17-9 advantage. Rich started the run with her first three and Josephson and Ebba Gebisa followed with jumpers. Josephson capped the Badgers scoring outburst with a steal and a fastbreak layup.
Just three minutes later, Ashbaugh's layup sparked a 7-2 run, capped by another Rich three, boosting the lead to 26-14 with 3:24 left in the half.
"Stephanie Rich hit some key threes in the first half," Illinois coach Theresa Grentz said. "They executed better than we did."
For most of the first half, Wisconsin's defense was strong—denying passes, cutting off dribble penetration and corralling defensive rebounds. The Badgers, though, broke down late in the period, allowing Illinois to close to within three after Dallas' layup capped a 9-0 run.
Wilson, though, rebounded a Josephson miss and converted a three-point play to stymie the threat and Wisconsin carried a 31-25 edge into halftime.
Wisconsin scored the first four points of the second half and built an 11-point lead when Rich drilled another three to make it 40-29 at 16:24. The Badgers led by as many as 17 and maintained a double-digit lead for more than 14 minutes in the second half, but the Illini pulled to within 57-50 when Jere Issenmann hit a three with less than four minutes remaining. The shot followed an Angelina Williams offensive rebound off a missed free throw.
Two Williams free throws cut the Badger lead to five but Rich's runner in the lane gave UW a 59-52 lead with less than three minutes remaining.
"I didn't even see it go in," Rich said. "I just threw it up hoping for a foul. It was a good night tonight shooting wise. It hasn't been like that all year. I'm just going to take the good from it and move on."
Illinois closed to within 63-57 when freshman guard Missy Mitidiero drilled a three from the corner, but Lello Gebisa hit one of two free throws and made a breakaway layup to clinch the victory.
Score by half
Illinois - (Field goals-Free throws-Points) - Cindy Dallas (4-6-14), Angelina Williams (4-2-11), Jere Issenmann (4-0-10), Tiffanie Guthrie (4-1-9), Missy Mitidiero (2-1-7), Erin Wigley (2-0-4), Janelle Hughes (1-0-2). Totals: 21-10-57
Wisconsin - (Field goals-Free throws-Points) - Stephanie Rich (7-0-18), Ashley Josephson (4-4-12), Lello Gebisa (5-1-11), Ebba Gebisa (4-2-10), Emily Ashbaugh (4-2-10), Jordan Wilson (2-1-5). Totals: 26-10-66.
Three point goals - Illinois 5 (Issenmann 2, Mitidiero 2, Williams), Wisconsin 4 (Rich 4).
Rebounds - Illinois 29 (Dallas 13), Wisconsin 41 (Wilson 9).
Assists - Illinois 13 (Guthrie 6), Wisconsin 16 (Rich 7) Turnovers - Illinois 13 (Guthrie 3), Wisconsin 12 (L. Gebisa 3)
Blocks - Illinois 2 (Williams, Dallas), Wisconsin 5 (L. Gebisa 5) Steals - Illinois 6 (Williams 2), Wisconsin 3 (Josephson 2) Fouls - Illinois 16, Wisconsin 14
Points - in the paint: Illinois 18, Wisconsin 24 - Off turnovers: Illinois 9, Wisconsin 17 - Fast break: Illinois 10, Wisconsin 8 - Bench: Illinois 9, Wisconsin 10 - Second chance: Illinois 9, Wisconsin 11. Ties - 1. Lead changes - 0