MADISON – For a program coming off back-to-back Final Four appearances, the University of Wisconsin has turned to silver linings.
Yes, things are a tough sell right now for a young roster struggling to pile together wins.
Battling back from a 14-point deficit to tie the game twice in the final 90 seconds, a valiant late effort by the Badgers couldn’t clean up all the problems that ultimately led to a 57-55 defeat at the hands of in-state rival Marquette.
“I tell guys when they aren’t doing things well, and I’ll tell guys when they are doing things well,” said Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan. “That poise they showed when Marquette had everything going for them that last eight minute, we got some turnovers, we got some good looks, but still in the end you come up short.
“There are some teams out there when things weren’t going real well wouldn’t have come back the way our guys did.”
Even so, the losses are starting to pile up for Wisconsin and conference play is still two weeks away. Instead of enhancing their resume, the Badgers (6-5) have lost consecutive non-conference games for the first time since 2011, lost at least two games to in-state opponents under Ryan and dropped consecutive non-conference home games for the first time since 1990-91.
“We’re not going to hang our heads after this game, but just go back to the drawing board and see what we could have done better,” said junior Vitto Brown, who led the team with 15 points. “We’ll apply it to the next game. We don’t look at it as we lost two in a row (and) we’re done now.”
UW put four players in double figures, including the first career double-double by Zak Showalter (10 points, 10 rebounds), but the key cogs of UW’s lineup were off its marks.
Three days after scoring a career-high 32 points, Nigel Hayes – plagued by the Golden Eagles’ best perimeter defender in Sandy Cohen - scored just 10 points. Finishing 4-for-18, it’s the fifth straight game the junior preseason All-American has missed at least nine shots.
Bronson Koenig was no better, scoring only eight points on 3-for-11 shooting. In UW’s six wins this season, the junior is 38-for-70 (54.3 percent). In the five losses he’s 20-for-72 (27.8 percent).
“Every time I came off a ball screen I felt like they doubled me off that hard hedge with one of their 7-footers,” said Koenig. “They made everything really tough for me. I am sure it was their game plan to get the ball out of my hands.”
After coming undone in the second half in its loss to Milwaukee, Wisconsin was thoroughly dominated, although the final score didn’t always indicate it.
Marquette (8-2) out ran Wisconsin in transition (17-2 in fast-break points), crushed them in low-post production (36-16) and locked the Badgers down offensively.
“We have them outsized down low,” said Marquette junior Luke Fischer. “Both (me and Henry Ellenson) have a couple inches on their fours and fives. That’s been an emphasis on our team the last couple weeks to play inside-out. Our game plan didn’t change.”
Wisconsin hit 2 of its final 14 shots in the first half, including only one point on its final seven possessions of the first half, and came out punch less in the second half by misfiring on 13 of its first 17 shots.
Marquette’s young squad, with three freshmen in the starting lineup, was fairly steady throughout, using its length inside with the 6-11 Ellenson (15 points, 11 rebounds) and the 6-11 Fischer (11 points, 8 rebounds) to shoot 52.2 percent.
“I wouldn’t trade them for any front court in the country,” said Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski. “Luke’s been a rock of maturity for our team, and in my mind, Henry’s having as good, if not better, a freshman year than anyone in the country.”
Despite shooting 20 more field goal attempts, Wisconsin shot just 36.4 percent and went only 1-for-4 from the free throw line.
“They did a good job of walling up with their bigs inside,” said Ryan. “They shut down a lot of penetration to the rim. If you’re getting there, you’re not getting those bumps they are calling now. You can’t get the fouls.”
And while UW trailed the final 23 minutes, Wisconsin still had chances late to pull one from the fire.
Starting with a Koenig 3-pointer, his first basket since the 10:57 mark of the first half, Wisconsin strung together a 12-2 run that was punctuated by a 3-pointer by Hayes in the corner, a shot that finally brought the arena to life.
After Ellenson rebounded his own miss for a bucket to quiet the crowd after a Marquette timeout, UW scored nine points on its next five possessions to tie the game at 53 with 1:29 left. Ellenson’s paint jumper swung the lead back to Marquette until Hayes’ jumper tied the score at 55 with 51 seconds left.
The Badgers would get no closer. The Badgers failed to box out Fischer following an Ellenson miss, allowing him the easy tip-in with 27 seconds left.
And to perfectly encapsulate the day, Hayes airballed a layup and a 3-pointer on the next possession and the Badgers failed to box out Fischer after Haanif Cheatham missed the front end of the bonus when UW was forced to foul, allowing the Golden Eagles to practically bleed out the rest of the clock.
“This is bragging right,” said Ellenson. “I wanted to show who was the best team in the state. I thought the way our team played, the way we got after it, was awesome.”