Three days after a cold shooting first half proved too much to overcome at Iowa, the Badgers made one field goal in the final 7:37 and were anti-clutch from the free-throw line, costing them dearly in a 49-47 defeat to No.13 Michigan State Tuesday night at the Kohl Center.
The final defensive numbers would suggest Wisconsin (13-6, 4-2 Big Ten) redeemed itself after allowing Iowa to be first opponent in 11 games to score over 60 points. Michigan State (17-3, 6-1) came in shooting 46.8 percent and averaging 70.3 points per game and was held to 38.3 percent shooting and a season-low 49 points.
But the Spartans won for the second straight time at the Kohl Center, and fourth time overall in the series, because the Badgers couldn't make a shot consistently from anywhere.
Failing to move back into first place in the Big Ten with a victory, Wisconsin finished 29.6 percent from 2-point range (8-for-27) and 3-point range (8-for-27).
"We might have settled for too many outside looks," said senior Jared Berggren, who finished with 9 points on 3-for-10 shooting. "I think there were more opportunities for a shot fake, a drive, get the ball inside a little more … The looks were there."
But what really cost Wisconsin was at the free throw line, a place that has been horrific for Wisconsin all season. Entering the game last in the conference in free throw percentage, the Badgers embarrassed themselves with an ugly 38.9 percent (7-for-18) from the line, including 5-for-13 in the second half and missing their last five with the lead still well within reach.
"It cost us a game before and it obviously cost us tonight," said senior Mike Bruesewitz, presumably referring to Wisconsin's 9-for-23 performance at Marquette. "We got to get in the gym and just start knocking them down. Plain and simple. It can't be an excuse anymore."
The misses were contagious from the team's worst free throw shooter - Ryan Evans – going 1-for-2 to one of its best – 75.9 percent shooter Berggren – missing 6 of 8, including the front end of a bonus situation with the Badgers down three with 5:23 remaining.
"It hurts the team, especially in a game like this when we're struggling to score down the stretch," said Berggren, who missed a dunk that would have turned the bonus into a three-point opportunity. "To get easy points like that and leave them on the board is frustrating."
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan and his staff diligently chart shots and percentages from practice, and Ryan said the free throw numbers from those situations are where he wants them to be. But at 61.1 percent for the season, ranked 331st out of 350 Division 1 teams, Ryan acknowledged the problem is becoming more mental.
"We got guys who are pretty good free throw shooters who aren't making them," said Ryan. "When you keep clanking them, the basket just keeps looking smaller."
Arguably the most painful misses came in the final seconds. After Evans hit a three-pointer, only his second in 20 attempts this season, freshman George Marshall was fouled on a drive to the lane with three seconds left. Having a chance to tie, Marshall missed the first and didn't draw iron when he intentionally missed the second, giving the ball to Michigan State out of bounds.
"It was a huge win for us against a team that has been playing really well," said Spartans coach Tom Izzo, as Michigan State improves to 6-1 in games decided by five points or less, including 3-0 in conference play. "They didn't make some free throws that cost them."
Bruesewitz led the Badgers with 10 points, added seven rebounds and seemed at points to make the plays that kept the Badgers in the game. He assisted on a three-point basket to Marshall, giving Wisconsin a 39-37 lead with 11:49 left, and drew a charge on the ensuing possession, causing him to excite the student section by lifting up his arms.
That completed a string of five out of six empty possessions for the Spartans, three in a row because of turnovers. After that, Michigan State went on a quick 6-0 run and never lost the lead again.
Wisconsin out rebounded Michigan State on the offensive glass (16-9), stymied the battled of the boards at 35 all and held Adreian Payne, who led the team with 7.1 rebounds per game, to only two rebounds, but the Spartans, which has outscored its opponents in the paint by an average of 11.3 points, outscored Wisconsin 20-10.
Most of that damage was done by Branden Dawson, who scored 18 points and grabbed a team-high 13 rebounds.
"He was a man among boys tonight," said junior guard Keith Appling, who led all scorers with 19. "Every rebound that came off the rim was his. He made his mind up that he was going to go up and get each and every one of them, and that's what he did. He helped us out tremendously tonight."
Both teams known for defense held one another to identical 37 percent shooting from the floor (10-for-27) in the first half, but the Badgers led 28-27 because of the long ball. While attempting only 10 two-pointers (4-for-10), Wisconsin made six of 17 three-pointers, seemingly answering the bell every time Michigan State tried to seize momentum, as the Spartans only led for 2:49 of the first half.
But with Wisconsin missing 16 of its last 19 attempts from 3-point range and its three frontcourt seniors going 9-for-32, the Badgers could only hold of the Spartans for so long.
"You can have a guy have an off night," said Ryan. "We had more than one guy have an off night and it's a one possession game. That's frustrating because you know you had opportunities."