The easy part is over for the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team.
The Badgers closed out non-conference play Friday night with a 96-60 blowout victory over Evansville that boosted their record to 9-3, matching the total number of wins for the program in each of the past four seasons.
But coach Jonathan Tsipis isn’t fooled. He knows the schedule was set up to get off to a confidence-building start and that the road gets a lot tougher, beginning with the Big Ten Conference opener next Friday at undefeated and 13th-ranked Minnesota.
“We’re done with one season but we hope this first season helped prepare us for the rigors that are the Big Ten,” Tsipis said. “We know it’s going to be difficult in the Big Ten every single night.
“As I watch the film there’s a lot of times I can say, ‘No, that’s not going to work against Minnesota. That’s not going to work against Purdue.’ I don’t think they take that as criticism, I think they take that as a challenge.”
The biggest challenge for the Badgers on Friday was to not lose their focus as they dominated the Purple Aces (2-9), who are ranked No. 349 in the NCAA RPI out of 351 Division I schools. And they were playing without one starter because of injury and another starter recently left the program as a transfer.
The Badgers wasted no time taking command of the game as they jumped out to a 10-2 lead and doubled up on the Aces 48-24 at halftime.
Senior Marsha Howard set the tone early with six of those first 10 points on the way to her fifth double-double of the season with a season-high 21 points to go with 12 rebounds in just 21 minutes.
But Tsipis was even more pleased with her defensive effort against the Aces’ top scorer, Kerri Gasper, in holding her to just three points, nine below her average.
“I think Marsha set the tone defensively,” Tsipis said. “I think she took a lot of pride the last two days knowing she’d have to guard somebody who is multi-dimensional. When their leading scorer scored three points, I thought that got us going. It didn’t allow them to have confidence on the other end.
“She played with great energy and understanding that the break doesn’t start until the game is over. She did some really good things defensively with her activity, with challenging shots, with hunting down rebounds to get us out in transition.”
The Badgers shot a season-high 52.2 percent from the field, with starting guards Kendra Van Leeuwen and Niya Beverley combining for 18 assists with just three turnovers.
Freshman Imani Lewis scored 16 points, junior Suzanne Gilreath contributed 14 off the bench with four 3-pointers and redshirt senior Kelly Karlis had 12 for her fourth consecutive game in double figures.
The Badgers opened the second half with an 18-2 run that included eight points from Howard and seven from Lewis to stretch the lead to 66-26. UW twice led by as many as 44 points.
The big lead allowed Tsipis to give extended playing time to his reserves. Sophomore walk-on Kara Crowley scored nine points to surpass her total for the season by one and redshirt sophomore Grace Mueller had eight to match her high from the previous game against Chicago State.
Being able to provide those kinds of playing opportunities was part of the reasoning behind scheduling a couple weaker opponents around the final exam period.
And Crowley, whose mother Karen (O’Malley) played for the Badgers from 1985-88, was just excited to take advantage of the chance.
“I’m just thankful to have this opportunity,” Crowley said. “My mom played here so being able to wear this jersey is just amazing to me. Being a walk-on is hard. You have to work harder sometimes than others. Every opportunity, I’m just going to do everything I can and put everything out there. I’m just happy to be here.”