CHICAGO - Forced to redshirt two years ago while recovering from a bout of mononucleosis, Duje Dukan was mentally crushed when he had to watch his teammates compete for a Big Ten tournament championship in a building he had grown up in.
When he recognized that he’d be able to return to the building and compete for a title as a senior, Dukan found another level of motivation for his final college season.
“That’s something that definitely got me excited,” said Dukan, all smiles after his eight points off the bench provided a nice lift in No.6 Wisconsin’s gritty 71-60 victory over Michigan Friday afternoon. “To be able to actually be here, move on to the semifinals tomorrow is an excited feeling.”
Junior Sam Dekker led Wisconsin (29-3) with 17 points while senior Frank Kaminsky (16 points, 12 rebounds) and sophomores Bronson Koenig (12 points) and Nigel Hayes (11) all played critical roles to help the Badgers move on to the Big Ten tournament semifinals, meeting fourth-seed Purdue Saturday at noon CT.
“We get to play another 40 minutes down here in Chicago in a great venue,” said UW coach Bo Ryan, “and your supporters that bought the tickets, they get to be here – that’s pretty exciting.”
That United Center means something special to Dukan. His father, Ivica, is the Director of International Scouting for the Chicago Bulls and affiliated with the organization for 20 years. He was a ball boy for games for seven years and even got to play on the court once as part of a halftime showcase.
“I grew up in this building,” said Dukan. “I consider it my backyard.”
The comfort level with the atmosphere and the environment were both evident in the second half. After going 0-for-3 in nine first-half minutes, the Deerfield, Ill., native went 3-for-5 from the floor and hit a pair of timely 3-pointers – one coming after Michigan took a 3-point lead and another after the Wolverines tied the game for 44.
“He was really fired up for coming here,” said senior Josh Gasser.
Dukan also was active in the low post, grabbing two rebounds, drawing low-post fouls and even threw down a two-handed slam dunk off the dribble that caused senior point guard Traevon Jackson to jump off the bench, bad right foot and all.
“His dunk was the real deal,” said Jackson, who hopes to return to the practice court Monday. “I told him before the game you’re going to get a dunk today. I was really happy. We gritted it out. We scrapped.”
A five-point overtime win in Ann Arbor in the team’s only regular season meeting, Wisconsin didn’t fare much better against a Michigan team associate head coach Greg Gard described as one with “nothing to lose.”
“They are free and loose out there,” said Gard. “We were expected to be in this position. We didn’t play that exceptionally well for most of that 40 minutes, but found a way to get it done and hopefully move on to better things tomorrow.”
Wisconsin – the heavy tournament favorites – was stagnate on offense during stretches and inconsistent on defense, a reason Michigan shot 51.9 percent, saw Wisconsin miss eight straight 3-pointers at one point and led the Wolverines smelling upset after leading by as many as nine points in the first half.
It took time for the pro-Wisconsin crowd to finally get something to cheer about. Shooting in the mid-30s through long stretches of the first half, Wisconsin finally figured it out with an 18-4 run to close the half, going 7-for-9 from the floor while holding the Wolverines scoreless for the final 3:35.
Wisconsin’s frontcourt scored the first 12 points on the comeback and Koenig buried 3-pointers on consecutive possessions, showing how quickly Wisconsin can make things turn in its favor.
“If anybody watched this game you see how talented Wisconsin is,” said Michigan coach John Beilein, as the Wolverines (16-16) got a game-high 21 points from Zak Irvin. “They’ve got a great game plan, but their size, their age, their strength, it was a big part in the game.”
Going against a four-guard starting lineup, Wisconsin’s three 6-9+ forwards – Dekker, Hayes and Kaminsky – pummeled the interior of the Wolverines’ defense to the tune of 36 points in the paint and a +15 edge on the glass.
The trio finished with 34 points on 17-for-33 (51.5 percent) and had 27 rebounds.
“We want to get shots around the rim – two foot shots – as many as we can,” said Hayes. “We had an emphasis to go inside. With Frank being 7-foot and there biggest guy being 6-10, we wanted to make sure we took the ball inside because we had the advantage.”
Even with the edge inside, it was a grind, a two possession game for a total of 16 minutes, 8 seconds of the second half that wasn’t decided until Michigan went cold for the final 4:05, making just two baskets down the stretch.
“We knew it would be close, even though we had a little bit of a lead going into half,” said Gasser. “We knew they were going to come out and give everything they’ve got. They were going to make some plays. We just had to counter them and we were able to make enough of them to come out with a win.”
Likely needing to win out and get some help to clinch a No.1 seed in next weekend’s NCAA tournament, and more importantly avoiding undefeated Kentucky, Wisconsin’s resume will get even stronger if the Badgers continue to get a lift from Dukan off the bench.
“We definitely need that production off the bench; it gives us a big lift,” said Koenig. “When certain guys aren’t able to shoot one night, then the bench really helps us.”