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Leuzinger, Badgers shine in WNIT
UW thumps ISU 86-61 to roll into Great 8
uw women nat leuz
Black Hawk graduate Natalie Leuzinger and Badger teammate Halle Douglass trap ISU’s DeAnna Wilson during a 86-61 UW-Madison victory on March 28. With the win, the Badgers advance to the Great 8 of the WNIT. - photo by Adam Krebs

MADISON — The Wisconsin women’s basketball team is enjoying its first postseason tournament in 13 years. Not since 2011 have the Badgers played in a postseason tournament. Wisconsin last played in the top-tier NCAA tournament in 2010 and the second-tier Women’s National Invitation Tournament ion 2011. 

“It’s been so fun and rewarding being able to play in some kind of postseason,” said senior guard Natalie Leuzinger, a Monroe native and 2020 Black Hawk graduate. “Obviously, we want to play in the NCAA tournament, but this program has not seen any sort of postseason play in years.”

Leuzinger and her teammates finished the season 13-16 overall, and just 6-12 in the Big Ten. The regular season ended quickly in the conference tournament, with an 80-56 loss to Penn State. 

The season initially seemed to be over, but then the Badgers earned an at-large bid into the WNIT. It was the program’s first trip to the WNIT since 2011. In 2000, Wisconsin won the title — a feat still notated on the upper deck facing inside the Kohl Center.

In their first game of the WNIT, Wisconsin appeared to be down and out quickly, but instead rallied from a 19-point deficit to Southern Indiana to win 67-62 on March 25. It was the fourth-largest comeback in program history. Not long later, Wisconsin found out it would host Illinois State in the Super Sixteen round of the WNIT, giving the roster’s three seniors another shot at not just a game of competitive basketball — but to do it on their home court.

“Being able to compete in the WNIT and having home games as well as been fun, and we’re taking this program to the next level. It’s baby steps, but it’s progress that we’ve been searching for for years, and it’s nice to see our hard work starting to pay off,” Leuzinger said.

In that game on March 28, the Badgers started slowly against the Redbirds, then erupted for one of the best offensive outputs of the season. Shooting 51.6% from the field, including 47.4% from behind the arc, Wisconsin trounced ISU 86-61.

“I think we really put a lot of pieces together, and that was really cool to see,” said head coach Marisa Moseley. “For our team to come out and have the performance that they did knowing that it is survive and advance —– knowing that we haven’t been in this situation before in this group … and riding this momentum from the last game’s comeback … I think they understood that there’s something special about playing together.”

Five Badgers scored in double figures, including Leuzinger, who had 12 points. Her final line included a 4-for-7 mark from the field, 2-for-3 from 3-point range, 2-for-2 from the free throw line, four rebounds, a steal and 32 minutes on the court —– second most on the team. She also took two charges, deflected multiple balls, had a steal under the hoop for a quick basket and hit a key 3-pointer in transition in the second half to solidify the rout. She did it all with her family just a few rows behind the Wisconsin bench. In fact, with the game pretty much in check, she spent much of the second half on the bench.

“For Nat to come down and knock in a 3 in transition, and just be really confident,” was pleasing to see, Moseley said. 

Deep into the fourth quarter, Moseley substituted Leuzinger and fellow seniors Halle Douglas and Brooke Schramek separately in and back out of the game. The moves allowed each of the three to receive — at the time — potentially their final sendoff from the court at the Kohl Center in front of the 3,133 fans in attendance.

Douglas played 26 minutes off the bench and had seven points, seven rebounds, five assists and four rebounds. Schramek also scored seven points and added two blocks and four assists.

“For Halle, she’s just starting to feel more into her body coming back from injury, it was really pretty cool. It was also the younger players wanting to make sure that they get to extend that time playing with them as well,” Moseley said.

Sophomore forward Serah Williams had her double-double streak of 17 games snapped, as she finished with 18 points and four rebounds. She battled through foul trouble, as did several other Wisconsin players. Sania Copeland also scored 18 points, including a 3-for-4 mark from deep. Ronnie Porter was 2-for-4 from 3 and had 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists. D’Yanis Jimenez (10) was the fifth Badger in double figures in scoring. 

“We do it all the time in practice, but now to see everyone translate it to the game, I think this is just the result of that,” Williams said of her team’s offensive outburst.

Copeland attributed some of the team’s offensive success to how well they shared the ball. The Badgers had 22 assists to ISU’s 9. 

“That extra pass usually works for us,” Copeland said.

Illinois State head coach Kristen Gillaspie said the Redbirds’ gameplan was to try and control Williams and the forwards in the post and roll the dice with the Wisconsin’s outside shooting game.

“They went 9 of 19 from 3 — 47% when statistically they are 28% at home,” Gillaspie said. “But, we gave them too many open looks, too — and in transition. We beat ourselves in a lot of different ways.”

Illinois State jumped out to a 9-4 lead just four minutes into the game. The Badgers then had back-to-back scoring possessions, with Williams hitting a jumper and then Leuzinger burying a 3-pointer to even the score with 5:05 left in the first quarter. From that point on, Wisconsin didn’t trail the rest of the game. The Badgers closed the first quarter on a 23-8 run to lead by 10. By halftime, the advantage had grown to 16 points at 50-34.

ISU brought the score back to as close as 10 points in the third quarter at 56-46, with a TV timeout pausing the game with 4:48 left in the frame. 

“At the 4 minute, 33 second mark in the third quarter, we had a timeout, and our goal there was to have it at 10-or-under, and we were right there. In the blink of an eye, things escalated really quickly. It got out of hand,” Gillespie said.

Moseley and her staffed challenged the team to rise up and regain control — and the Badgers obliged. Wisconsin outscored ISU 30-15 the rest of the way, including going ahead by 30 points at one juncture.

The Saint Louis Billikens (19-18) upset Purdue Fort Wayne (23-13) the following night, and the Badgers found out they would once again host another tournament game on April 1. The Billikens finished seventh in the Atlantic 10. It will be just the third-ever meeting between Saint Louis and Wisconsin, with the Badgers win both prior games, with the most recent coming in 2011.

Should the Badgers emerge victorious on April Fools Day, Wisconsin would play either the very next night or on Wednesday, April 3 against the winner of Purdue (15-18) and Vermont (24-11). The other teams playing in the WNIT Great 8 include UL-Monroe (21-13), Troy (21-11), Minnesota (18-15) and Wyoming (18-14).

“This is something new for all of our players on our team. We’re really just embracing it and going as far as we can — taking it day by day, practice by practice,” Copeland said.

A victory over Saint Louis would also mark UW’s fourth-ever advancement into the WNIT semifinals. The other trips included winning the title in 2000 and runner-up finished in 1999 and 2007. The 2024 WNIT championship is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 6, and will be nationally televised on CBS Sports Network.