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Kelly Karlis has not only shed her redshirt, but her black shirt as well.

Karlis, a redshirt senior, will make her official debut for the University of Wisconsin women’s basketball team tonight when the Badgers open the regular season against Winthrop at the Kohl Center.

It is a welcome occasion for Karlis, who spent most of last season wearing the black jersey of the scout team in practice every day as she sat out the season after transferring from Ohio University.

“We had a lot of talks once the season was over last year about just not having to wear that black practice jersey that the scout team had anymore,” coach Jonathan Tsipis said. “But I think that helped get her ready. I think it gave her some good offensive freedom to go out and throw caution to the wind and just play.”

Karlis, a 6-foot-2 guard, got to do just that in the exhibition game against UW-Oshkosh on Sunday as she played a team-high 27 minutes, a sure sign that she figures to be an instrumental player for the Badgers. She made good use of that time, scoring 11 points and grabbing a team-high eight rebounds.

“It was a lot of fun to get back out there,” Karlis said. “My teammates were all pretty encouraging so they made the transition a lot easier.”

Kelly Karlis photo

Kelly Karlis, one of seven newcomers on UW's roster, played in 67 games in her three seasons at Ohio University.

Karlis also is happy to be playing with her teammates every day, rather than against them all the time in practice.

“It’s great actually being able to get reps with our team now,” Karlis said. “Being on the black squad is kind of awkward because you don’t get to run our plays. Sometimes you feel like you’re an outsider even though you’re right there with the team.

“But the team did such a great job of including me in everything and telling me that even though you’re not on the floor, you’re still a vital part of the team.”

Tsipis is counting on Karlis to be a very tangible contributor this year, both offensively and defensively.

“From the offensive end I need to have her put herself in position on the 3-point line but be able to attack in other ways as well,” Tsipis said. “She can be a really good perimeter defender for us, I think she rebounds well from the guard spot.”

Karlis is one of seven newcomers to the UW roster, but she is hardly a newbie to the college game. She played in 67 games in her three seasons at Ohio. After being limited to eight games as a freshman because a stress fracture, she averaged 3.8 points and 4.1 rebounds in 32 games as a sophomore. She started 24 games as a junior, averaging 6.3 points and 5.2 rebounds.

But she wasn’t satisfied with her situation and decided to try to challenge herself at a higher level. UW had been her dream school during her prep days at Montini Catholic in Lombard, Illinois, when she helped her team win three Class 3A state titles in four years.

But it didn’t take long for her to realize she’d have to step up her game if she was going to be able to make a positive impact on her new team.

“When I came to campus last year,” she said, “the first time scrimmaging with my teammates I was like, I don’t know if I can ever keep up with these girls because everybody is so good.”

She took advantage of her transition year by refining her perimeter shot with the help of assistant coach Myia Johnson and building up her slender frame, adding 15 pounds through improved nutrition and strength and conditioning work.

“This past year I’ve tried to put on a lot of muscle to keep up with the girls in this league,” Karlis said. “It’s a whole different league. I’ve been working with the nutritionist to get my meals right and better prepare myself for games.”

And after a year of running opposing teams’ plays in practice and watching helplessly from the bench during games, she’s eager to do what she can to help the Badgers improve on last year’s 9-21 record.

“Sitting out last year made me realize how much I do love the game,” she said. “I think it was a good thing for me because I found that love and passion for the game again. I can’t wait to get out there with my teammates and bring that passion and emotion every game.”

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Dennis Punzel covers Wisconsin Badgers volleyball, women's basketball for the Wisconsin State Journal.