MADISON – Finally getting a chance to settle in to the head coach’s chair, Greg Gard started preparing for Wisconsin’s Big Ten opener against No.14 Purdue with one thought in mind: how was his young team going to battle and compete now that the competitiveness would be dialed up a few more notches.
Gard was pleased that he got the answer he was looking for, even though the final result is becoming painfully familiar for the defending Big Ten champions.
Possessing a frontcourt full of behemoths, Purdue’s ability to pound the paint offensively and alter countless shots against an undersized Wisconsin was the difference in a 61-55 victory for the Boilermakers at the Kohl Center.
Nigel Hayes scored 17 points to lead Wisconsin (8-6, 0-1 Big Ten), which saw its streak of 12 straight conference-opening wins snapped. But at least the Badgers went down fighting, giving a small sense of accomplishment for a young team trying to build a foundation.
“Were we going to be in position to do what the upper echelon teams in the Big Ten do?” Gard said. “That’s a 12-round, rock-fight-type of game. I thought for the most part … that we battled, and that was the biggest thing that I wanted to see. How was this group going to respond, and they went toe-to-toe with a really good team.”
Six days after 26 turnovers nearly blew a 30-point lead for Wisconsin in a home game against Green Bay, Wisconsin overcame a height – and arguably a talent gap – to push a Purdue (13-1, 1-0) team picked to compete with Maryland and Michigan State for the 2016 Big Ten title by bringing a large helping of grit and tenacity.
Problem was the Badgers couldn’t sustain their success, especially in the low post.
With no experienced low post player outside Hayes in the rotation, Purdue’s persistence to work the ball inside paid off big in the second half. Purdue scored 18 second-half points in the paint (10 in the first 6:48) and got the Badgers into the double bonus at 7:32. That led to Purdue making more free throws (12) than UW attempted (eight).
“They never got into the bonus,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter. “That’s always been a big part in how they play.”
Purdue finished with 34 points in the paint and out rebounded Wisconsin, 36-26, the first time this season the Badgers have been beaten on the glass.
“What got us in trouble were the lapses that we had sometimes or not doing that good of a job guarding their big guys,” said Hayes. “We get a little bit better here or there not letting them touch the ball or not fouling to send them to the free throw (or) late lapses in the last minute thirty, it could be a different game.”
Averaging 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds through his first 62 Big Ten games, A.J. Hammons was the only Purdue player in double figures with a game-high 24 points to go along with seven rebounds. Purdue did get eight points from 6-8 forward Vince Edwards, nine rebounds from freshman Caleb Swanigan and four assists from P.J. Thompson, who fed Hammons on post touches on consecutive possessions to help Purdue build a 48-37 lead – the largest of the game- with 5:56 remaining.
But despite the problems, and scoring droughts still creeping into the offense, the Badgers didn’t fold.
Almost a week after little-used Jordan Hill made his presence felt in Wisconsin’s rotation, the Badgers got a huge lift from Alex Illikainen. One of the players tasked with trying to muscle the 7-0, 250-pound Hammons, Illikainen scored eight of his career-high 10 points in a 3:09 stretch in the second half, production that came with his first 3-pointers since Nov.17 and a jumper from the corner that cut the lead to 52-49 with 1:40 to go.
That jumper was preceded by Illikainen – playing with four fouls – bodying up Hammons and forcing a turnover underneath the basket.
“I thought Alex, for the most part, did as good of job as anybody we had on (Hammons),” said Gard.
The enjoyment was short lived, as guard Dakota Mathias – averaging 4.5 points off the bench – hit a 3-pointer in the corner in front of a charging Zak Showalter. One possession later he hit another one from the Purdue bench to silence the crowd, and UW never got closer than five.
There was marked improvement from game one to two in the Gard era. The Badgers cut their turnovers down from 26 vs. Green Bay to seven and ratcheted up its intensity to put forth one of its better defensive efforts of the season. In 32 first-half possessions, Purdue – averaging 81.0 points per game – scored only 24 points (.72 points per possession) and committed 10 turnovers.
Problem was UW didn’t complement its defense with an offensive outburst. The Badgers ended up the half 2 of 12, shot 32 percent (10 of 31) and could never sustain much rhythm.
“We didn’t show much patience,” Painter said of the first half. “We were very fortunate the finish the first half the way we did … In the second half I thought our guys did a better job of showing patience, getting the ball into Hammons and not fouling them.”
Now 3-3 on its longest home stand of the season, Wisconsin will host Rutgers Saturday before playing four of its next seven on the road.
“I saw some things as a team, I saw some things individually that are good signs that they’ve taken a step in the right direction,” said Gard. “We aren’t anywhere near that yet, obviously far from perfect or satisfied, but I was encouraged. We have a lot to work on … but I think they realized if we do this together and do it our way, the Wisconsin way, we can be a pretty effective team.”