CHICAGO-The University of Wisconsin was finally getting a taste of the medicine it had been inflicting on Big Ten opponents the entire season.
Facing a Purdue frontcourt with a couple of 7-footers, little could go right for Wisconsin in the first half with Purdue pounding the paint offensively and swatting shots away defensively.
The second half was a different story.
Tightening its screws defensively was a twofold success for top-seeded Wisconsin, as the Badgers limited Purdue’s quality looks and generated efficient offense off of their defense in their 71-51 comeback over Purdue in the Big Ten tournament semifinals.
“We were letting them get easy post touches and get two feet in the paint too easily,” said junior Sam Dekker. “They’re too big inside, and if you let them do that, they’re going to win. We just tried to make it a little tougher for them to get inside, to stay physical.”
The physicality was lacking in the first half for Wisconsin (30-3) against a pair of 7-footers who were starting to dominate the low block. Building a pair of seven-point leads, Purdue hit 13 of 26 shots in the first half and saw one of the 7-footers – A.J. Hammons – scored eight of Purdue’s 16 points in the paint by having his way around the basket.
“I thought I made a good defensive play and it literally went right into his hands and he was wide open,” said Kaminsky, as UW’s 35-30 halftime deficit was only the fourth time it trailed all year at the break. “We knew it was just one of those plays that you really can’t do much about, it happened got to get over it and move on. We knew we had to come out with way better defensive intensity.”
Wisconsin certainly responded, only allowing Purdue (21-12) to score 16 points in the second half, tied for the fewest points UW has allowed in the second half since the season opener. Purdue missed 19 of its 25 shot attempts (24 percent) because Wisconsin’s defense on Hammons was entirely different.
After giving up post position and watching Hammons – a consensus second-team All-Big Ten pick –go 4-for-7 from the floor, Kaminsky didn’t let Purdue’s junior make another field goal after the 48 second mark in the first half. The secret to holding him 0-for-4 from the floor the rest of the game? Going at him offensively and staying physical with him defensively.
“He’s a great basketball player (and) if he can get things going he can be difficult to stop,” said Kaminsky. “We just had to do whatever we could to take him off his game and frustrate him.”
Kaminsky and company said the goal was to get Hammons, who scored 23 points against Penn State in the tournament quarterfinals, to rack up the fouls and be forced to the bench. It’s the same plan that UW used in a victory at Mackey Arena last year, resulting in Hammons playing only 12 minutes and attempting three shots in a 14-point UW win.
Picking up one foul in the first half, the frontcourt for Wisconsin forced Hammons to pick up his fourth foul by the 8:12 mark, sending Hammons to the bench. He never returned, as Wisconsin closed the game on a 19-7 run.
"We got him in foul trouble at Purdue last year and got him off the court, so we had a couple of opportunities to draw fouls and did," said Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Close. "I thought Frank did a good job. (Hammons is) tough. He's a handful. If you get him a little bit out of where he's almost invincible, the odds are better."
Wisconsin also neutralized 7-2 center Isaac Haas, as the freshman only scored two points in 16 minutes.
“He’s still learning, he’s still getting better, he’s going to be a heck of a player, too,” Gasser said of Haas. “Obviously there’s a reason why Hammons got all the Big Ten recognition, why he’s playing 25 minutes a game opposed to Haas who’s playing 15, so we knew if we got Hammons to the bench it would be in our favor.”
By holding Hammons scoreless in the second half, the Badgers held Purdue to two critical scoring droughts, which allowed Wisconsin to firmly take control. The first lasted four minutes, 55 seconds to begin the second and another went 4:59, the latter of which turned a two-point Wisconsin lead into 13 points.
From forcing seven Purdue turnovers and no easy points on offense, a stout effort from Wisconsin defensively has them 40 minutes away from a Big Ten title sweep.
“When we're playing defense well, it becomes really fun because then you can see what it does to us,” Dekker said. “When we get those good stops and good momentum, we get our athletes out in the open court and we can make it tough on them and get them on their heels. When we're doing well on the defensive end, it makes offense more fun because one thing leads to another, and we have the guys that can get it done on both ends.”