Shooting the basketball efficiently from all parts of the court, balanced scoring with four players in double figures and an aggressive defensive effort, the Badgers got back to their brand of basketball in a 75-63 victory over Illinois at the State Farm Center Tuesday night.
Sam Dekker and Ben Brust each had 16, while Traevon Jackson and Nigel Hayes added 14 to help Wisconsin (18-5, 5-5 Big Ten) shoot 47.8 percent overall, 43.5 percent from 3-point range and 80.5 percent from the free throw line. As a result, the Badgers won their seventh straight over Illinois – the longest such streak in UW history – and won their third straight at Illinois since the 1906-08 season.
No matter how it was presented to them, this was a "get well" win after a difficult stretch in which it lost five of six.
"A lot of good things happened, no question," said assistant head coach Gary Close. "We played pretty solid defense the whole game … We knock some threes down, move the ball, got good shots, played tough, had a couple adverse moments that we were able to withstand. It's a great win. Really, really good win."
Those adverse moments came in the second half when the Badgers went through one of their scoring swoons. Making only three field goals during an 11-minute stretch in the second half, Wisconsin had a 10-point lead get whittled down to as little as two points on a stretch filled with turnovers and missed jumpers.
Unlike the previous games, however, Wisconsin found a way to close. UW scored on six straight possessions to build a 63-55 lead with 3:37 left, capped with a give-and-go play between Dekker and Brust, a deep Josh Gasser 3-pointer and a 3-pointer from Dekker from the top of the key.
UW closed the game scoring at least one point on 12 of its final 14 possessions, getting big lifts from struggling plays. In addition to Dekker's 3-pointer from the top of the key, Dekker hit another one from the left elbow to make the score 66-57. On a 2-for-20 stretch before making his first 3-pointer in the first half, Dekker's four threes tied a career high.
Wisconsin was 10 of 23 from 3-point range compared to 4-for-10 from Illinois.
"I could tell guys were feeling good, especially Sam," said Hayes. "Sam knows he's a shooter just like the rest of the guys and the shots haven't been falling for him. When all the threes were going in, especially late in the game in crunch time and you looked at Sam. He's like, ‘yeah, we're back.'"
Junior Traevon Jackson was another struggling UW player who bounced back, finishing with 14 points, 5 of 7 on free throws, seven rebounds, three assists and one turnover. UW out rebounded Illinois 31-25 and got a combined 19 rebounds from three guards, including a team-high eight from Gasser.
"They did a much better," UW coach Bo Ryan said of the guard play. "I thought we did a good job keeping them out in front of us. I thought we got some good help, too. Defense is a team game, too … I thought defensively our five guys played pretty well, especially in the second half."
UW was able to make its second-half push because of the continued high-level play from Hayes. Scoring 10 of his 14 in the first half, Hayes was in rhythm from the start and has scored in double figures in five conference games.
"My confidence is increasing," said Hayes. "That's due in part to the team. They've been talking to me, saying, 'Hey Nigel, we need you.' They're giving me the ball and telling me to attack. I'm very hard to guard. That's what we work hard to do.
"Nigel has been impressive all year, ever since he stepped foot on campus," added Ryan. "His work ethic, his intelligence, he's a guy that has really helped us, especially when we've been struggling here a little bit. He's been pretty much the one bright spot at time. Hopefully now it's caught on with some other guys."
Rayvonte Rice had a game-high 24 points and nine rebounds for Illinois (13-10, 2-8), which have now lost eight straight for the first time since 1974. That streak started with a 95-70 blowout by the Badgers in Madison on Jan. 8.
"It was a hard-fought game," said Ryan. "Illinois is playing hard. They are like us. Sometimes getting shots to go in is very difficult."
With three of their next four against ranked teams, the win was pivotal for a program that is starting the rebuilding process.
"It shows the kind of resiliency we've got," said Close. "We can't get the games back that we lost. We'd love to. That's obviously not going to happen, but you move on. You get better. There's a lot of basketball left. This is a pretty good team, especially when we play like that. Hopefully that's a step in the right direction and hopefully we can keep doing that."