View Gallery (2 Photos)After losing five straight games, the Wisconsin women’s basketball team (2-5) will have the challenging task of breaking the streak against the undefeated No. 5 Duke Blue Devils Thursday at the Kohl Center.A matchup that is part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Duke is the most talented squad UW has faced this year. Returning three starters from a team that reached the Elite Eight last season, the Blue Devils will certainly be favored to take down the Badgers at home.Despite these recent struggles, however, the UW women’s basketball team is keeping an optimistic outlook heading into the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.“It’s so easy to get down on yourselves when you’ve lost five games in a row, especially knowing that there were games in that stretch that we should have won, we could have won,” senior forward Tara Steinbauer said. “I think staying confident and being positive and, you know, taking each of these losses as a learning opportunity.”Although the season has not gone quite as planned for Wisconsin following a promising 2-0 start, a strong performance against Duke could mark a turning point for the team. As the men’s basketball team showed last year, being an underdog against Duke gives the Badgers a chance to make a major statement for their program.However, keeping up with the ACC squad will be no easy task, as they have averaged 17 more points per game this season than Wisconsin. Led by senior guards Jasmine Thomas and Karima Christmas, who both average more than 10 points per game, the Blue Devils offer an experienced lineup of guards that are the foundation of their offense.“[Duke’s] backcourt is exceptional,” assistant coach Oties Epps said. “They have a lot of speed, athleticism, and explosiveness in the backcourt. We haven’t faced a backcourt as talented as Duke’s backcourt, so it will be a good measuring stick for us.”Duke is strong at every position on the floor, but Wisconsin will try to protect the lane and force them to feed the ball inside, the idea being to limit the scoring of their prolific guards.The Blue Devils also present a faster paced offense than the Badgers are used to facing, but UW is sticking to its usual strategy going into the game. A team that always focuses on the fundamentals and defense, Wisconsin will continue to focus on those aspects of the game against the top-five team.“We have to take care of the ball always and rebound. We’ve gotten out-rebounded the past couple games, and we can really focus on that,” freshman guard Morgan Paige said. “Turnovers, making the turnovers last and making sure you come out with the hustle plays – that’s what’s going to put us on top in this game.”Part of what makes Duke such a strong team is that they play well on both ends of the floor, holding opponents to 20 points less per game than they score. Shooting 43 percent from the field and 36 percent from behind the arc, their offense will present a formidable challenge for the Badgers.On the defensive end, the Blue Devils average 12 steals per game and 10 more rebounds per game than Wisconsin, a sign of just how well rounded they are as a team.“No doubt Duke is going to be tough,” Steinbauer said. “We’re going to have to play the best basketball you’ve seen us play all year. Their big, their physical … I definitely think our defense is going to have to be at a premium, but I know that we’re up for the challenge.”One of their most anticipated non-conference games of the year and their last home game before a two-game road stretch, a win over the Blue Devils would give the team great momentum in getting their season back on track. If the Badgers can come away with a win it would be a big step forward for both the Wisconsin women’s basketball program and the Big Ten.“We’re hoping to make a statement, not only for the Big Ten but just for our program,” Epps said. “In this matchup, we have a great opportunity, and we’re extremely blessed to have the opportunity to play Duke here on our home floor.“We’re going to try to take advantage of it.”
Back from another weekend on the road, Wisconsin’s volleyball team began Big Ten play with a four-set victory against an unbeaten Northwestern team Friday and followed it with a five-set loss to No. 20 Illinois Sunday.Head coach Pete Waite, whose team now sits at 13-2 and 1-1 in Big Ten play, was pleased with the team’s performance to start off conference play.“I like what I’m seeing, they are progressing well, [the] Big Ten is here,” he said at the weekly press conference Monday. On Friday, UW displayed its progress by battling back from a 23-18 deficit in the third set to win 26-24 and take a 2-1 lead over the Wildcats. The Badgers went on to close the match with a 25-23 victory in the fourth set.“That was a really good road win for us,” Waite said, “I think it just showed [that] the team has come together and is pretty gritty, and that they’ll fight until the end.”Against Illinois, however, the team fell short, dropping the fifth set 15-9 and putting an end to its 11-game winning streak. The loss reminded the so-far winning Badger team they still have small areas in which they have to be more consistent late in the game. Despite the loss, the team showed determination by forcing a fifth set after being down 15-10 in the fourth game to the 2011 national title runner-up. “I thought we had a good shot at them,” Waite said. “That was a team that was in the national championship last year, and we nearly got them in five games but fell a little bit short.”Another positive of the weekend’s games came from strong individual play from sophomore Courtney Thomas and junior Annemarie Hickey. Thomas, the 6-foot tall setter, picked up her sixth and seventh double-double of the season while recording a career best 57 assists against the Fighting Illini. She averaged an impressive 12.56 assists and 2.44 digs per set on the weekend.Hickey, the 5-foot-8 libero, also stood out by returning to the top of the Big Ten rankings in digs per set, leading the league in all matches with 4.92.Wisconsin will be relying on Thomas and Hickey’s strong play as it looks to extend its unbeaten record at home this season when Big Ten powerhouses Penn State and Ohio State come into town Friday and Saturday.“We’re up to the task,” Waite said, “I think our defense is solidifying, and they’re excited about playing. We’re not afraid about playing these teams coming up.”According to Waite, the key to playing a Penn State team standing between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6 will be ball handling, speed and attacking the block. Waite also said he will put more defensive focus on the left side this week in practice to prepare for Penn State’s strong left side attackers.The Nittany Lions will be looking to beat the Badgers at home, something they were unable to do last year.“A year ago, they were a very young team – just like we were,” Waite said. “Just like we’ve matured, they’ve matured … for us we have to play real consistent ball, real aggressive, real confident and go after them just like we did here last year.”As Wisconsin looks ahead to the rest of the Big Ten season, its head coach anticipates tough competition and exciting play.“It’s just going to get better and better, more exciting for our fans,” Waite said. “Players have to step up so that’s going to make you better too … you don’t really find out about [where you stand] until you’re against the Big Ten teams because they’re all just bigger, faster and stronger in every way.”The Badgers will take on Penn State this Friday night at 7 p.m. and will be honoring former head coach Steve Lowe with the 22nd annual Steve Lowe Night. Lowe coached UW’s volleyball squad from 1986-90 and led the program to its first-ever Big Ten championship in 1990 before dying of lung cancer in 1991 at age 35.They will be playing the No. 22 Ohio State Buckeyes Saturday at 7 p.m. Both games will take place at the UW Field House.