Benjamin Siegel, For BadgerNation.com
SYRACUSE, NY – It took three weeks, but the University of Wisconsin finally has a win it can brag about in the month of March. And has fate would have it, it came three days after its biggest disappointment of the season.
In an ugly offensive game for both teams, Wisconsin freshman Ethan Happ stood out, scoring a team-high 18 points and 15 rebounds in the 66-58 overtime victory over No.14 Syracuse in front of 22.360 at the Carrier Dome.
Three days after its worst shooting performance in nine years in a road loss at No.7 Oklahoma, Wisconsin shot 41.7 percent from the field and put four starters in double figures.
“People are going to start having contests, like, OK, how are they going to play tonight?” said Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan. “If we aren’t the biggest mystery in the country right now, I don’t know who is as far as trying to find some consistency, but we’re going to keep working.”
While the victory helped the Big Ten win the annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge (8-6), holding the title since 2008, more important than conference pride was Wisconsin redeeming itself on both ends of the court.
The Badgers (5-3) held the Orange – coming off impressive shooting performances in the Bahamas - in-check all game. Syracuse (6-1) shot 35.7 percent from the field, 29.2 percent from the 3-point line and missed out on plenty of opportunities at the free-throw line, where they shot 55 percent (11-for-20).
But on those missed opportunities, the Badgers took advantage.
Wisconsin, who played its typical slow-style offense, controlled most of the second half. The burn offense, if you will, visibly frustrated Syracuse.
Leading from the midway point of the first half until Syracuse made a 14-3 run, spurred by 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions, to lead 41-35 with 11:10 remaining, Wisconsin pounded the low post to score its next 10 points inside.
Outscoring Syracuse, 30-14, in the paint for the game, Happ was UW’s biggest weapon, scoring all eight of his buckets from the paint. He also showed a touch of determination, scoring eight of his points after being whistled for his fourth traveling call at 10:41.
“He had better balance, he was more patient on his finishes, he slowed down a little bit,” Ryan said of Happ, who also had three blocks and two steals. “He used his pump fake, used his dribble when he needed it and was really tough on the glass. He was real aggressive on the glass.”
Nigel Hayes scored 15 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and had six assists in 44 minutes. He was critical in overtime, registering a 3-point play in the low post that give Wisconsin the lead for good at 58-55.
UW outscored the Orange, 13-5, in the extra session, while holding the Orange to 1-for-9 shooting.
“It was his play inside that turned it around,” Ryan said of Hayes. “There were a lot of guys who did some nice things.”
Those guys included Vitto Brown (14 points, eight rebounds), Zak Showalter (six rebounds, five assists) and Bronson Koenig (12 points), who shook off a 3-for-9 night by hitting a 3-pointer with 1:25 left that eventually sent the game to overtime.
The real story was rebounding. Wisconsin was able to penetrate in SU’s 2-3 zone to win the rebounding edge, 51-25, and grab 17 offensive rebounds that led to 18 second-chance points. That helped erased 20 Wisconsin turnovers.
“That’s pretty much the difference in the game,” said Ryan. “I thought our guys were hungry going after the ball.”
UW’s persistence inside also led them to the free throw line, shooting 91.7 percent (11-for-12) from the charity stripe. More importantly, UW never panicked down the stretch or strayed too far from its identity, something that was missing in Sunday’s loss to the Sooners.
“I think Wisconsin is a great team,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “Hayes and Koenig were starters last year for a national championship contender.”
On Wednesday, Wisconsin started to see those two veterans take a bigger leadership role, and the result was a signature win on the resume.
“They’re emerging as guys that are showing that when the chips get down, when things get out of control, out of whack, that we can count on two guys to steady everybody,” said Ryan. “They did that definitely tonight.”