MADISON – During a magical 36-win season a year ago, the University of Wisconsin was so talented and so dominant that the Badgers seldom faced many nail-biting affairs, especially in the nonconference season.
On night one of the college basketball season, with virtually a completely overhauled roster, the Badgers know what it feels like to have adversity smack them straight across the face.
Struggling on offense throughout the second half and on defense – the program’s calling card – throughout the game, No.17 Wisconsin was dealt the first upset of the college basketball season, as Western Illinois shocked the Badgers, 69-67, in front of equally surprised home crowd.
The only one who didn’t seem real flabbergasted was Wisconsin’s head coach.
“Now you know why I was saying all the things I was saying earlier about ‘Whoa, some days we got a long way to go,’” said Bo Ryan. “Bet you guys thought I was saying the same old stuff, but I think you see now.”
Nigel Hayes scored 17 points in the first half but was held scoreless after halftime when the Leathernecks (1-0) changed their rotation patterns on him. Bronson Koenig scored 12 of his 17 in the second half; he needed two more. Having the opportunity to send the game to overtime, Koenig’s jumper from just inside the free throw line rimmed out and time expired during the scramble for the rebound.
“It all starts with what happens in practice,” said Koenig. “We need to pick up the intensity there and hopefully it will translate over to here.”
On a night that began with a celebration of its past, raising a 2015 NCAA finalist banner to the Kohl Center raters, the future looks unclear after Badgers (0-1) saw a number of streaks end in ugly fashioned.
Wisconsin had its streak of 51 consecutive wins in regular-season, non-conference games against unranked teams end, as well its streak of 60 straight home wins against teams outside of the six major conferences. UW also lost for the first time in a season opener since 2001 – Ryan’s first season – and the first time in a home opener since 1997.
It also showed that nothing is going to be handed to a team a handful of months removed from playing for a national championship and having only 12 games decided by nine points or less.
And with no scholarship seniors and plenty of new faces filling major roles, there were plenty of frustrating moments, especially when Wisconsin’s defensive rotation wasn’t up to snuff. Although 14-42 on the road since the beginning of the 2011 season, Western Illinois wasn't intimidated and had little trouble finding the bottom of the net, shooting 60.9 percent in the first half.
“These were definitely things that I foresaw coming, things that we had talked about all year that we knew,” said Hayes. “Primarily our defense with our bigs; we knew that was something that was a bit of a weakness that we need to make sure we worked on … The fact that (a loss) happens allows you to see it better.”
The Leathernecks cooled slightly (48.1 percent in the second half, 54 percent for the game) but easily converted at the rim against the slow-footed Badgers with quick guards J.C. Fuller (game-high 20 points) and Garret Covington (16).
“We felt going into the season that our guard was a strength,” said Western Illinois coach Billy Wright, whose team scored 30 of its points in the paint. “We felt that if we could get to the paint we’d have some success, whether we finish at the rim or kick to shooters.”
UW kept pace through the first 20 minutes, leading 44-37 at halftime, but when the Badgers’ offense stopped functioning, starting 4-for-24 to begin the half, the Leathernecks put together an 11-1 run to make the score 64-56 with 6:24 remaining.
“Just the way we rotated, the way we didn’t pinch, things that we became pretty good at that takes time, really showed tonight,” said Ryan. “It’s not a surprise to me. I just thought offensively we would be a little better and we could handle not being very good defensively at this point. When you shoot the percentage that we did, you don’t get a chance to make up for offensive inefficiency.”
Wisconsin tried its best to claw back in the game, going on a 9-3 run thanks to a timely charge by Zak Showalter (eight points – all in the first 7:28), six points from Vitto Brown (11) and five from Koenig, including a 3-pointer from the elbow that answered a 3-point play by Covington.
But when presented with the chance to take the lead after Koenig forced Fuller into a hasty pass along the baseline, Koenig missed a jumper on the offensive end and fouls by Brown – resetting the shot clock with one second left – and another by Iverson on the perimeter put Western Illinois in the bonus with 10 seconds left.
Covington made both free throws and that was that.
“It’s upsetting, knowing we had control of the game and we let it slip away,” said Brown. “They did a good job of exploiting our weaknesses, so we’ll continue working on that every day in practice.”