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Jacki Gulczynski has come a long way in one basketball season.
Gulczynski, the Bartlett graduate who is now a sophomore at Wisconsin, had a rough start to the season. She struggled to find her shot, and in turn, her confidence.
But continued hard work, a trademark of Gulczynski's during her years at Bartlett, and her Wisconsin coaches showing confidence in her, has led to a turnaround and now she's one of the top players for the Badgers and one of the top sophomores in the Big Ten.
"At the beginning of the year if someone had told me I'd be where I am now I wouldn't have believed it," said Gulczynski Thursday after leading the 11th-seeded Badgers to a 58-57 upset win over No. 6 Illinois in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament at the Sears Centre.
"I got off to a slow start and that was due to my low confidence and not trusting my shot," said Gulczynski, who had 15 points and 8 rebounds in the win over Illinois.
Gulczynski points to a 71-68 win over Marquette on Dec. 5 as being the night her season turned around.
"(Assistant) Coach Alysiah (Bond) pulled me aside that night and said she thought I was going to have a big game," said Gulczynski, who scored 14 points that night, making 5 of 8 shots including 3 of 3 from 3-point range. "That game the shot just started falling and it's been building every game since. My coaches and my teammates gave me a great talk about my confidence."
As Wisconsin enters Friday's quarterfinals against No. 3 seed Purdue (approximately a 2 p.m. tipoff, Big Ten Network), Gulczynski is the team's second leading scorer at 12.6 points per game. She also averages 5.9 rebounds and has elevated her shooting percentage to .429 as well as continuing to be a great free throw shooter at 85.5 percent.
Gulczynski, whose best offensive output this season was a 32-point game (15 rebounds) against Ohio State on Feb. 7, recently earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors. She is one of only 10 Big Ten players to score more than 30 points in a game this season. She's also dished out 51 assists this season and has 21 steals and 24 blocks. She has more than quintupled her scoring output from her freshman season, She has scored in double figures 22 times and her Big Ten scoring average of 14.6 per game ranks her 10th in the league. She made 22 straight free throws during the season (third best ever at Wisconsin) and was named to the all-tournament team at the Miami Invitational.
She's an academic all-conference player majoring in civil engineering and was named Big Ten Player of the Week Dec. 17.
In Thursday's win over Illinois, the 6-foot-1 left-hander scored 11 of her 15 points and grabbed 5 of her 8 rebounds in the second half as the Badgers roared back from an 11-point deficit to notch the top upset on the first day of the weekend tournament. She played all 40 minutes and averages 34 minutes per game for the season.
"Illinois has a great rebounding team so we just had to strive to put a body on them," she said. "Once we picked up our energy it made a big difference."
Playing all 40 minutes didn't matter much to her either.
"By now we're used to it," said Gulczynski. "Our bodies are used to it and we're excited to be playing another day. We're not worried about our bodies right now, we're just happy to be playing another game."
The second year of college has been much easier for Gulczynski in just about every way.
"It's routine now," she said. "The first year everything was new and sometimes you lose sight of your priorities. Now you know how to adjust."
And instead of heading back to Madison, Gulczynski and the Badgers get to stay in Hoffman Estates at least one more day. Considering they upset nationally ranked Big Ten champion Penn State on Jan. 31, a win by the 12-18 Badgers over 21-8 Purdue, which beat the Badgers 58-48 in the teams' only meeting this season, is certainly not out of the question.
"We're real excited to play Purdue," Gulczynski said. "We had a great game with them at the Kohl Center and we're just going to have to do what we have to do to get ready for them. We've had so much adversity this season but we've been in all these games and to get this win against Illinois is great for us."
One thing will be for sure Friday at the Sears Centre. The Wisconsin Badger wearing No. 35 won't be lacking for confidence.