CHICAGO - Playing its 33rd game of the season, the University of Wisconsin still has plenty to showcase to a room full of selection committee members a couple hours south of the United Center.
Following a lackluster opening 20 minutes, Wisconsin showed that when it turns it on, there are few teams that can keep up.
“When we’re playing really well like that, we have the confidence we can go up against anybody and can take care of business,” said junior Sam Dekker. “We’ve got a confident bunch here, a talented group and we’re rolling right now.”
After trailing at halftime for only the fourth time this season, No.6 Wisconsin tightened up defensively and exploded offensively, resulting in an opening 29-9 run that gave the top-seeded Badgers a 71-51 victory over fourth-seeded Purdue Saturday in the Big Ten tournament semifinals.
Bronson Koenig’s career-high 19 points led the four players in double figures for Wisconsin (30-3), which will play for the program’s third tournament championship against third-seeded Michigan State on Sunday at 2:30 pm. CT.
“I think we’ve made out case, but that’s up to the committee; that’s not up to us,” said Kaminsky, who scored 12 points, had five assists and a team-high three blocks and steals. “We’re just going there and play tomorrow to the best of our abilities and try to win a championship.”
It’s a position Wisconsin is in because of a stretch of basketball that was as good as it has played all year, highlighted by crisp passing, timely offensive rebounds and a couple of Dekker dunks that caused the pro-Wisconsin crowd to explode and Purdue to become unglued.
“Coach (Bo Ryan) pretty much told us at halftime that we really weren’t playing Wisconsin basketball,” said Koenig. “I thought we got more into that in the second half.”
A different team after halftime, Wisconsin scored nine points from the 3-point line, eight points in the paint, eight points off jumpers and four points from the free throw line on their game-changing run, a balance that was missing in the first half when UW settled for jumpers instead of attacking Purdue’s bigs in the paint.
More importantly Wisconsin started pushing the ball, gassing the Boilermakers (21-12) in the process.
“When we do that, we’re definitely one of the best teams in the country,” said Koenig.
The deflating moments were countless on the run that went the first 13:42 of the second half, a handful of them created by the energy of Hayes and Showalter. Hayes grabbed three offensive boards, leading to a Koenig 3-pointer to tie the game in the opening minutes and a Josh Gasser 3-pointer to give UW its first double-digit lead.
Showalter grabbed three rebounds (two offensive) in seven minutes off the bench and capped the run with a pair of free throws off a miss.
“That’s a back breaker,” said associate head coach Gary Close. “When you play as hard as they do defensively, you get a miss, you get an offensive rebound and score, that’s debilitating.”
Playing behind a national player of the year candidate, Hayes has quietly and consistently delivered. A year after being named Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year as a true freshman, Hayes is averaging 12.1 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Hayes finished with 15, but 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting in the first half were one of the lone bright spots that kept UW in the mix.
“There’s been some nights this year where he’s been the best player on the floor,” said Dekker of Hayes. “It’s kind of nice for us to have a guy who can do that each and every night – get 10-to-15 a game and 7-to-10 rebounds is a hot commodity. Nigel is a big part of our success this year.”
After going 1-for-6 in the first half, Koenig went 6-for-8 in the second half, including a pair of buckets with the shot clock about to expire on the scoring binge. He also had a stretch where he scored seven straight UW points via a jumper, 3-pointer and a layup.
“Those were huge shots,” said Hayes. “We all know he’s capable of doing that. We always try to give him the confidence to take those shots and make them. That’s part of the reason why when the shot clock gets low, we just move out of the way and let Bronson get to work.”
And most of it came after a first half where the Badgers lacked a similar intensity. The Badgers shot only 37 percent, missed 13 of their first 19 shots and started 3-for-11 from 2-point range against Purdue’s interior size.
The real problem was the defense, especially against Purdue center A.J. Hammons. After the 7-footer scored a 23-point outing against Penn State, Hammons had 10 points, five rebounds and three blocks. It was a reason Purdue shot 50 percent and scored 16 of its 35 first-half points in the paint.
Hammons was also the reason for Purdue’s struggles down the stretch. With Wisconsin bringing an aggressive approach right at him, Hammons picked up three of his four fouls in the first 11:48 of the second half and never returned, finishing the final 20 minutes 0-for-4 with two turnovers.
“It was primarily Frank and a little bit of Vitto (Brown) and Nigel helped in there a couple times,” said Ryan. “If you start to dig too much off of their perimeter shooters, they can shoot the three, so we cat and moused a little bit, fake dig, and then cover. I thought one on one Frank did an unbelievable job of not allowing Hammons to score.”Without Hammons and Wisconsin able to buckle down on Purdue’s post touches, the Badgers registered deflections, steals and only three second-chance points, directly resulting in the Boilermakers making only six field goals, 16 total points in the second half and only four points in the paint.
Consider that another statement the Badgers were more than willing to show the committee.
“It shows that when we bring it, we have energy and everything like that, it shows how well we can play,” said Kaminsky. “From down five at halftime and we win by 20, that doesn’t just happen by accident. It’s one of those things where everyone is playing well, everyone is buying into the same thing, everyone is getting stops on defense and everyone is moving on offense.
“When you have all those things go right, the score really shows what happens.”