MADISON – Just when you think something is going to come easy for the University of Wisconsin, the Badgers make things extraordinary tough on themselves.
Leading by 30 points in the second half and on cruise control, the Badgers suddenly found themselves in a one possession game in the final minutes against a mid-major opponent, an all-too-common occurrence through the first two months of the season.
But after already faltering in three late game situations at home, Wisconsin scraped together enough plays to notch an 84-79 victory over Green Bay Wednesday, making Greg Gard the eighth coach in program history to win his debut and just the third since 1934.
“He was able to step right in and I thought he did a fantastic job,” said Nigel Hayes, who scored a team-high 24 points, of Gard. “He’s basically been an extension of a head coach to us. He knows the ins and outs of the offense and what Wisconsin basketball is about. He’s more than deserving for this job.”
Four players scored in double figures for Wisconsin (8-5), which salvaged a win in the in-state round-robin despite coming 26 turnovers and many questionable decisions late that almost put a damper on the party.
Hayes provided the biggest lift with his scoring, including five points on consecutive possessions with less than two minutes to go that kept Green Bay at bay, and his 4-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio. After shooting below 40 percent in six of UW’s last seven games, Hayes started 6-for-6 from the field and 6-for-6 from the free throw line and didn’t miss until the 4:58 mark in the second half. He finished 9-for-9 from the line.
But while Wisconsin fans started heading for the exits after Hayes’ free throws put UW up 68-38 with 13:01 to play, Gard knew better.
Green Bay (6-5) has made a living on pressuring opponents full court and using a variety of traps. Anybody who didn’t know better knew after the Phoenix went on a 33-6 run that made the Badgers look like keystone cops.
“If there ever was a tale of two halves, this is it,” said Gard. “There's a lot of things we can learn from that we did really, really well, and there's a lot of things obviously that we have to correct and continue to move forward … How they play is exactly what we saw. They’ve done that to every team they’ve played.”
Two of the ugliest stretches came when Wisconsin committed back-to-back turnovers within 15 feet of Green Bay’s basket early in the second half and another stretch where it committed turnovers on eight straight possessions.
Three of those came off the hands of Bronson Koenig, who committed a career-high eight turnovers. A year ago, Koenig committed a turnover every 32.1 minutes (26 turnovers in 835 minutes). This year it’s one every 18.4 (25 turnovers in 459 minutes).
“We did not play well,” said forward Ethan Happ (16 points), referring to the last 10 minutes. “It was embarrassing to our program. It was embarrassing to us. I know it made me sick. I’m sure it made the other guys sick as well. We cannot play like that in the Big Ten season and expect to win at any point in the game.”
But UW did enough, scoring 12 points on its final six possessions, to prevent Green Bay from cutting the lead closer than three. It allowed Gard to put a capper on an evening that was celebratory from the start. He walked on to the court to a loud standing ovation and gave a hearty wave to the crowd when the spotlight shone on him following player introductions. When it was over, the majority of his immediate and extended family packed the media room for his post-game comments and he did his Big Ten Network interview with the roster standing behind him. Everything in between was business as normal.
“I’m so honored to be in this position,” said Gard. “Hopefully we can keep moving forward.”
Whether it was by design or the fact that starting guard Koenig and Zak Showalter each picked up two fouls in the first 6:10, Gard went nine-deep in the rotation and instituted elements of Bo Ryan’s famous swing offense last week to help with the team’s spacing and ball movement.
The result was a season-high 48 first-half points on 43 possessions and the 21-point halftime lead was the biggest of the season.
“The swing is just a glorified name for spacing, and spacing helps offense,” said Hayes. “When we spaced the floor well, swing the ball, make solid cuts, good things happen. When we don’t space the floor, it’s not as easy to score, shots get a little tougher and things get a little out of hand.”
Added Gard: “It’s nothing elaborate from a standpoint of spacing, ball and body movement and making sure our angles are proper. You’ve seen it here before in different formats.”
The biggest benefactor of the fresh slate – and the guard foul trouble - was Jordan Hill, who had played in just seven of UW’s first 12 games and was averaging 3.9 minutes with no points. Playing 12 minutes, Hill scored eight points. He also displayed some of the dogged defense that earned him a scholarship by drawing a charge that seemed to energize his teammates.
“After I got up and down the court a couple times I felt like I belonged,” said Hill, who finished with a career-high 10 points. “I’ve waited a long time for an opportunity and tried to make the most of it.”
Green Bay scored 93 and 108 points its previous two games but was all out of sorts early on. After Carrington Love (28 points) made a free throw at 13:50 to give the Phoenix a 16-15 lead, Green Bay spent the next 9:27 missing shots, committing seven turnovers and registering nine fouls.
The scoreless drought for the Phoenix equaled a 17-0 run for Wisconsin and a commanding lead that stayed at double digits for the next 23+ minutes.
“I thought when he got down 30 the game was probably over,” said Green Bay head coach Linc Darner. “I give our guys a lot of credit. They never quit. They kept battling back. One thing I’ve talked with them about is one thing about our system, the game is never over. Whether we’re up 20, down 20, you can always come back because of the way we play.”
Beginning conference play next Tuesday against No.14 Purdue, Wisconsin still has issues to iron out, like not letting its guard down.
“I thought we showed a little more toughness tonight in key stretches,” said Gard. “We’ve got a lot learning to do yet and I’m excited to be with this group. They’re definitely hungry.”