For the seventh time this year, though, the Badger women's basketball team lost a heartbreaker: a game that was within reach in the final minute, only to slip away. This time it was to No. 11 Purdue, 66-63. This time it was on senior day. And this time, UW held a lead through much of the game while playing against a formidable opponent hungry for a win after two straight losses.
"We've played ranked opponents all year right to the wire and the breakthrough is happening," Badger head coach Lisa Stone said. "This program is going in the right direction and I'm very proud of our seniors and their leadership and their young players."
Sophomore guard Janese Banks hit a layup with 10 seconds left and senior forward Jordan Wilson fouled, sending Purdue senior forward Carol Duncan to the charity stripe. Duncan missed her two free throws, giving the Badgers (11-17 overall, 5-11 Big Ten) one last shot. As the buzzer sounded, Banks missed a 3-point shot that could have sent the game into overtime.
With the game tied at 61-61 with 1:02 left, Purdue junior forward Katie Gearlds nailed a jumper to put the Boilermakers (22-5, 13-3) up by two and senior guard Aya Traore had a huge block on Banks while the latter was going for a layup on the following play.
"I wanted just to try to attack the basket and they hedged out on me but then they backed off so I just took the jumper and it went down," said Gearlds, who finished with a team-best 19 points. "Aya, she always comes up with some big blocks for us. She comes through swinging her arms and . . . thankfully she was able to get that one for us."
As UW celebrated its departing senior class, consisting of Wilson, guard Ashley Josephson and forwards Kjersten Bakke and Annie Nelson, it had just as much reason to celebrate its underclassmen. Badger sophomore guard Jolene Anderson led all players with 26 points, while Banks contributed 17, including two 3s and seven free throws.
Fulfilling a constant team goal, UW dominated on the boards, out-rebounding Purdue 43-29. Anderson and sophomore forward Danielle Ward grabbed nine boards apiece, while Wilson added seven.
"You can ask these underclassmen but I'll guarantee that they wanted to win this one for the seniors and send them off with a great senior day," Stone said. "A valiant effort. . . Our basketball team is playing very, very good right now. We're playing our best basketball at the right time."
After Purdue jumped out to a 6-0 lead one-and-a-half minutes into the game, Ward hit a jumper to put UW's first points on the board with 18:08 to go in the half. But that initial six-point Boilermaker lead was the greatest of the half; the teams traded baskets throughout the first half, with Anderson hitting a 3-pointer with 12:37 left in the first half to give UW a 15-14 lead. From there, the Badgers held the lead for nearly the rest of the first half and took a 31-30 lead into the locker room.
And through a hotly-contested, physical second half, UW maintained that lead—a slight lead but nonetheless a lead—going up by as much as 41-35 with 13:05 left.
Both teams struggled to hit their shots early in the second half; Purdue junior forward Erin Lawless hit a 3-pointer with 16:36 remaining to break a nearly three-and-a-half minute scoring drought for Purdue during which the Boilermakers went 0-for-6. Wisconsin fared no better, scoring just one free throw and going 0-for-6 before Wilson hit a long 2-pointer to put UW up 34-33 with just under 16 minutes left.
"We just didn't knock down shots the start of the second half," Gearlds said. "Defensively, we kind of kept ourselves in the ball game and eventually shots started falling for us and things turned around."
Purdue played about half of the second half without sophomore forward Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, who collected her third and fourth fouls in the first two-and-a-half minutes of the second half and sat out until there was 9:40 left in the game.
"I think it did (stop my aggressiveness), not only on defense but offensively," Wisdom-Hylton said. "I didn't want to drive and get an offensive call but on defense, I had to be more passive and kind of just stand there instead of trying to go for the block or something like that all the time. It's really hard to play with four fouls."
Wisdom-Hylton, though, nailed a key jumper with 5:29 left that gave Purdue a 52-51 lead and later made a layup with 2:35 left that put Purdue ahead 59-58; the Boilermakers never fell behind after that point. She finished with 15 points, three blocks, a steal and five rebounds.
The Badgers, seeded ninth in the Big Ten Tournament, next face Penn State in the first round of the tournament on Thursday in Indianapolis and will play top-seeded Ohio State if they get past the eight-seeded Nittany Lions. The Badgers did that 10 days ago, with a 66-56 win over the Nittany Lions in Madison Feb. 16.
"It's a team we played two weeks ago," Stone said. "We're going down there (to Indianapolis) to do what we set out to do. And that's to take it one at a time, win, survive and move on."
"I think tonight, you go home, you think about what happened, tomorrow we have a day off and maybe focus toward academics and Tuesday for the three hours we're on the court, we've got to focus on beating Penn State," Banks said.