With the way the Badgers were connecting from the free throw line, Wisconsin’s lead wasn’t going anywhere.
The Badgers’ shooting finally cooled after five straight halves shooting over 50 percent from the floor, but fourth-ranked Wisconsin grinded out a 62-55 victory over Purdue Wednesday night by hitting its stride from the free throw line.
Improving to 3-0 in Big Ten play for the third straight year, Wisconsin (15-1, 3-0) went 25-for-31 from the free throw line, including 17-for-21 in the second half, and had three players – Frank Kaminsky (21), Gasser (15) and Traevon Jackson (13) – score in double figures because of it.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well but when you go 25-for-31 and down the stretch make your free throws, that’s hard to get teams to come back,” said Gasser, as UW survived a night where it shot 43.6 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from 3-point range. “We’ve got five guys on the floor. It doesn’t matter who gets fouled. We’re confident that we’re going to knock down two.”
A grinding game is nothing new for Wisconsin with Purdue. The Boilermakers (10-6, 2-1) were the only Big Ten team Bo Ryan didn’t have a winning record against (now 11-10), and Purdue was one of two conference teams to have won three times at the Kohl Center in the Ryan era (Illinois the other).
So Wisconsin clinging to a 49-47 lead with 5:22 remaining wasn’t a shock to the system.
“I think everybody on both sides, coaches, players, officials, everybody who was involved in that is going to sleep well tonight,” said Ryan, who won his 159th Big Ten game, passing Hall of Famer Walter Meanwell for most conference wins in school history. “There was a lot of energy out there on the court…It was a grind. I think there’s going to be more of those in the league this year.”
After center Isaac Haas scored two of Purdue’s 38 points in the paint, Wisconsin went to work at the free throw line. Over the next four minutes and change, Wisconsin scored 13 points on nine possessions, nine of which came on 10 attempts from the free throw line.
The Badgers didn’t waste any bonus situations and didn’t miss a pair of free throw until Jackson had two rim out with six seconds remaining and the result already decided.
“It was good to grind out a win like this,” said Gasser. “Low scoring, we had to fight through some adversity, stay mentally tough, that’s what we needed.”
Purdue had built its team around balanced scoring and altering shots. The Boilermakers entered the game by getting at least eight points from six different players and leading the Big Ten with 5.7 blocked shots per game.
The Boilermakers shot 51 percent from the field and out rebounded UW 26-21, but only had three players over eight points (Jon Octeus had 15 to lead Purdue), received only seven points in 12 minutes from leading scorer Kendall Stephens because of foul trouble and weren’t able to register a block.
“That was a big loss for us,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said of Stephens. “He’s got be able to adjust with those calls…We didn’t have the level of a shooter who could stretch the defense and make big shots before.”
The Boilermakers also didn’t have the same such luck from the free throw line, as Purdue only went 3-for-7 (season lows in both categories). This season the Badgers have made 47 more free throws than their opponents have attempted.
“The game was won and lost at the free throw line,” said Painter. “We had to be able to get to the free throw line and we didn’t.”
All five Wisconsin starters shot above 60 percent from the free throw line and four were above 75 percent, including Kaminsky. Under the weather and having to deal with a pair of 7-footers that weight over 260 pounds each, Kaminsky’s game-high in points was a product of going 11-for-14 from the free throw line.
Painter said his team’s goal coming into the game was to try to keep the ball out of the post and attack Kaminsky, who he called “an athletic guard,” by putting a forward on the senior and try to knock him out of the post, forcing the UW All-American to shoot over players and deal with double teams inside. It wasn’t entirely effective.
“And that’s hard because he’s a good passer,” said Painter, “and he’s a good player.”
It doesn’t stand up in the box score, but Nigel Hayes adding seven points and five rebound in 35 minutes was also a needed assist to Kaminsky, who started feeling ill during UW’s afternoon shoot around.
“People need to look at what Nigel did tonight,” said Gasser. “That’s a big reason we came out with a win. Nigel’s completely overmatched size wise, physically, but he was able to do a really good job that second half.”
Purdue led for 14:14 of the first half, but the Badgers started to get energized closing in on halftime. Sam Dekker’ one-handed slam off a Gasser miss – putting Dekker over 1,000 points for his career - was part of a 10-4 spurt was capped by Kaminsky executing a coast-to-coast layup off a steal to give UW a 24-23 lead in the waning minutes of the first half.
It helped the Badgers claw back into the game – leading 28-27 at halftime – despite shooting 37. 5 percent. It was UW’s lowest shooting percentage for a half since Dec.28 against Buffalo, but one that showed the Badgers have enough wherewithal to survive on a night where not everything is clicking.
“The ball just wasn’t finding the net,” said Ryan. “If we can still play like that on defense and make teams work, try to get them out of some kind of comfort zone, which there wasn’t much of in that game for either team, and come out with win, yeah, that’s a gutty performance by our guys.”