All season long Wisconsin has developed a theme. Play well at home, but struggle to close the deal, then play very poorly on the road.
The tide began to turn on the latter in the waning minutes of a 66-50 loss at Penn State a week ago. It shifted strongly on the former with Sunday's 66-62 win over Indiana. And Thursday, mercifully, a whole season's worth of frustration away from Madison ran its course.
Yes, the Badgers' 59-53 win over Illinois is just one victory. And yes the team is still mired well beneath the Big Ten leaders, improving its record to just 4-11 in conference play and 10-15 overall. But entering this game having lost all seven of its league games, and boasting just a 1-9 overall road record, Wisconsin can be forgiven for exuding a little excitement.
"That look in their eyes; it's amazing," Wisconsin coach Lisa Stone said of her team's confidence. "It's amazing even just in the hotel (before the game). We're getting comfortable with each other. It's never been an issue of anything negative, but I'm seeing some hunger, I'm seeing some fight, I'm seeing some battle."
Wisconsin also won back-to-back games in conference play for the first time this season. It is the Badgers' first winning streak of any sort since they topped Illinois and IP-Fort Wayne Jan. 13 and Jan. 16 of this year.
"The learning curve is demonstrating that we are improving, and I look forward to the next game. I can't wait to play," Stone said. "It's time to play. You throw record books out of the way right now; it feels like March to me. I'm excited."
"I'm really proud of my team," she added. "We've been battling all kinds of things, and to have our first road win right now – it builds some momentum."
The Badgers were ragged offensively in the first half, shooting 39 percent and suffering 11 turnovers. Wisconsin finished with 21 turnovers, but thrived in the second half behind 52 percent shooting, while holding Illinois to an 8-for-34 performance in the second half.
Sophomore forward Jordan Wilson paced Wisconsin with 16 points and nine rebounds, while senior center Emily Ashbaugh and juniors guard Stephanie Rich and forward Ebba Gebisa each pitched in 10. Sophomore guard Ashley Josephson contributed nine points and eight rebounds. She and Rich, who also had eight rebounds, each played the full 40 minutes.
The Badgers were playing with an extremely short bench with sophomore forward Kjersten Bakke out with a knee injury and senior center Lello Gebisa not quite fully recovered from an ankle injury. Lello Gebisa played 15 minutes off the bench and just two other reserves touched the floor—sophomores guard Erin Olson (one minute) and forward Annie Nelson (five).
Wisconsin led by as many as 10 points in the second half, but nearly saw the lead slip away as Illinois pulled to within 55-52 with 1:51 left. The Illini, though, missed their last four shots and the Badgers made 4 of 5 free throws down the stretch to ice it.
"The kids battled," Stone said. "It was very physical, and we weren't getting too many calls down there. It was a bit of a hostile environment, and we overcame it and put this one away."
Score by half
Wisconsin - (Field goals-Free throws-Points) - Jordan Wilson (5-6-16), Ebba Gebisa (2-5-10), Emily Ashbaugh (5-0-10), Stephanie Rich (3-2-10), Ashley Josephson (4-0-9), Lello Gebisa (2-0-4). Totals: 21-13-59.
Illinois - (Field goals-Free throws-Points) - Tiffanie Guthrie (6-2-15), Angelina Williams (6-1-15), Cindy Dallas (6-2-14), Jere Issenmann (1-0-3), Brittney Daugherty (1-0-2), Erin Wigley (0-2-2), Janelle Hughes (1-0-2). Totals: 21-7-53.
Three point goals - Wisconsin 4 (Rich 2, Josephson, E. Gebisa), Illinois 4 (Williams 2, Guthrie, Issenmann).
Rebounds - Wisconsin 44 (Wilson 9), Illinois 32 (Dallas 11).
Assists - Wisconsin 12 (E. Gebisa, Rich 4), Illinois 5 (Williams 2) Turnovers - Wisconsin 21 (Wilson, Rich 6), Illinois 9 (Williams 4).
Blocks - Wisconsin 4 (L. Gebisa 2), Illinois 0 Steals - Wisconsin 5 (Josephson 2), Illinois 10 (Williams, Dallas 3) Fouls - Wisconsin 15, Illinois 17.
Points - in the paint: Wisconsin 24, Illinois 18 - Off turnovers: Wisconsin 11, Illinois 15 - Fast break: Wisconsin 2, Illinois 2 - Bench: Wisconsin 4, Illinois 5 - Second chance: Wisconsin 8, Illinois 13. Ties - 2. Lead changes - 2.