EVANSTON, Ill. – How many gut punches can one team take, especially one as young as the University of Wisconsin?
Interim head coach Greg Gard continues to insist his players keep their chins up as they go through a difficult learning process, but even the strongest of wills would be tested on the downward plunge the Badgers seem to be on that they can’t stop.
“I’ve never been a loser in my life,” said guard Bronson Koenig, who struggled to explain why Northwestern competed harder than Wisconsin did during the Wildcats’ 70-65 victory in front of 7,264 fans at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“I’ve always came from winning programs, and the past few years we’ve obviously won, so this definitely something new to most of it who come from winning traditions. It’s getting very tiring.”
Losing three straight conference games for the first time since January 2014 and falling to .500 this late in the season for the first time since 1997-98, Wisconsin (9-9, 1-4 Big Ten) has suffered four conference defeats to teams with a combined 10 losses, including four in conference play, by a combined 15 points, but silver linings and pats on the back are getting tiresome.
For once the problem wasn’t Wisconsin’s offense. For the most part the Badgers shot the ball efficiently, finishing the game at 47.8 percent, but couldn’t continue the momentum they had started to establish over the last few games on the defensive end.
After holding the high-scoring offenses of Indiana and Maryland to season-low point totals last week, the Badgers were burned by a Northwestern team that didn’t need to connect with its bread-and-butter 3-point shot.
The Wildcats’ (15-3, 3-2) game plan was black and white: if the Badgers were going to pinch the 3-point line, they were going to relentlessly attack the paint. The result was the Wildcats scored 30 points in the paint and attempted 34 free throws (making 22). It carried over to the defensive end, as well, as Northwestern suffocated UW on the glass in a 34-25 edge.
“The past few games we’ve definitely taken steps forward, especially against teams like Indiana and Maryland who have quick guards who can get into the lane,” said Koenig, who finished with nine points (all in the second half), no assists and three turnovers. “Tonight I thought they killed us off ball screens.”
Sophomore guard Bryant McIntosh was the biggest beneficiary, punishing the Badgers off mismatches and scoring 12 of his game-high 28 points in the paint, not to mention setting up his teammates for 10 paint points on his five assists.
“We’ve got to be better from a ‘bigs’ standpoint guarding the ball screens,” said Nigel Hayes, who had a team-high 17 points. “They saw that was a weakness early on, and they attacked it throughout the game. They got their point guard to go off and have a game. He’s a good player, no disrespect to him, but that’s a guy that our guys should be able to guard and handle coming off a ball screen.”
Wisconsin entered the game leading the Big Ten with 13.2 offensive rebounds per game, resulting in 12.2 second-chance points. The Badgers finished with seven offensive boards and only four second-chance points. Ethan Happ (12 points) and Hayes led UW with six rebounds.
“It wasn’t the most cerebral game we’ve played,” said Gard. “That’s disappointing … Defensively we were not as sharp, not as in tune, not as connected as we’ve been.”
Like so many times this season, Wisconsin had chances to pull a win out late but couldn’t execute.
Down 61-55 with 2:39 left, UW went full-court press and managed to generate three turnovers on its half of the court down the stretch. Those turned into zero points, the biggest buzz kill coming with UW down 68-63 with 20.2 seconds left. Taking the ball out on the end line, Koenig found a driving lane at the top of the key but was whistled for an offensive foul – his fifth – underneath the basket with 12.6 seconds left.
But the real story of the game was evident in the opening minutes of each half.
On its first six possession, Northwestern scored 12 points, production that all came from slashing into the post and converting near the rim. While Northwestern’s shooting eventually cooled down, the Wildcats finished with 18 first-half points in the paint, a pair from the free throw line as a result of a post touch and didn’t make its first shot outside the line until a 3-pointer at 6:00.
The beginning of the second half was eerily familiar. Northwestern scored on its first eight possessions by attacking the paint, resulting in six layups and 3-for-6 from the free throw line.
“They really tried to hug the 3-point line, which teams have done and had success against us,” said Northwestern coach @Chris Collins. “We told the guys to drive the ball, hence there were a lot of points in the paint and we got to the foul line. I thought we did a great job of winning without having to hit a lot of jump shots.”
And while UW suffered through two scoring droughts of at least three minutes while Northwestern crashed the paint in the first half, the Badgers strung together eight buckets in an 11 possession stretch that allowed UW to claw within 26-24 at halftime.
A big portion of that success came from UW confidently finding the gaps in Northwestern’s 2-3 zone. Of UW’s 11 made field goals in the first half, UW registered an assist on 10 of them and got contributions from seven different sources.
Second half was close to the same story. UW shot 64.3 percent over the first 10:15 (9-for-14) and finished with assists on 19 of its 24 buckets, but never could slow Bryant or Northwestern in the paint or on the boards.
“It’s getting to the point where you have to be embarrassed,” said Hayes. “To walk out there on the court and being looked at as a team that people are saying you’re not going to make the tournament, we’re not good, is a terrible team. It’s got to come to a point where you have pride and represent yourself first, your teammates, your family, Wisconsin, the program itself, the players who played here before.”