After blending into the background in UW’s 70-65 loss at Northwestern, head coach Greg Gard stated point blank that the Badgers can’t afford losing their big redshirt freshman forward’s production for considerable lengths of time.
Happ started to get the message, which was critical for him to shake off a couple miscues and for Wisconsin to avoid another home heartbreaker.
“Just pure joy,” said Happ, who delivered the play to finally get Wisconsin over the hump, hitting a reversed layup with 10.2 seconds left to lift the Badgers to a 77-76 victory over No.4 Michigan State at the Kohl Center.
“We’ve been on the wrong side … and we’ve had a couple tough losses in a row. To beat a team like Michigan State, a tough team like Michigan State, it was really joyful to share that with my teammates.”
Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes combined to score a combined 51 points to help Wisconsin (10-9, 2-4 Big Ten) snap out of their three game conference losing streak and show that the defending Big Ten champions still have some fight, especially its two seasoned veterans.
Koenig shot above 40 percent for the first time since Jan.2 and scored a career-high 27 points, including a handful of deep 3-pointers in the face of Spartans senior guard Denzel Valentine (23 points), who simply threw up his hands as if to say “what could I do?”
“Koenig is a Spartan killer,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo of Koenig, whose 3-pointer with 26.8 seconds left cut the deficit to 76-75. “He did the same thing in the Big Ten tournament that he did today.”
An outspoken critic of Wisconsin following Tuesday’s 70-65 loss at Northwestern, Hayes used harsh words to describe the play of himself, his teammates and vowed it would improve. Stewing on the loss for four days, Hayes delivered with 25 points (7-for-14 shooting) and seven rebounds.
But it was Happ who was the hero by shaking off a pair of turnovers and two missed free throws down the stretch to hit the winning bucket, a shot that came after initially bobbling the pass from Koenig and sticking with it with Matt Costello (18 points) towering over him.
“I knew I had some time,” said Happ. “I heard people yelling ‘shoot,’ so I knew I had to get up there, but I was patient with it and it went in.”
All the things that had crippled Wisconsin at points this season - not strong enough on the glass, not enough scoring contributors and not enough plays in crunch time – started to evaporate against a Michigan State team that has beaten everybody on its schedule not named Iowa.
Wisconsin scored 10 points on its final four possessions from four different sources, out rebounded Michigan State, 6-3, over the final four minutes and had Happ and Khalil Iverson force a critical turnover – trapping junior Eron Harris in front of UW’s bench and seeing him step out of bounds – to set up Happ’s winner.
Wisconsin had been 1-5 in one-possession games, including 0-3 at home.
“We were just a little bit better in possessions,” said Gard. “Did we play any differently? No. We’re still trying to do the same things, but we were a little bit better in terms of how we executed at certain times. We’re far from perfect, but we’re stepping in the right direction.”
The Spartans (16-3, 3-3) had two leads of at least four points in the final 2:10 after Valentine hit repeated tough right-handed hook shots in the lane. Michigan State scored 34 points in the paint, compared to just 20 for Wisconsin, but the free throw line made the difference.
Wisconsin went 29-for-36 (80.6 percent), including 7-for-7 from Koenig, 9-for-10 from Hayes and 8-for-13 from Happ, while Michigan State went only 12-for-16 (75 percent). One of those misses was by Valentine with 2:10 remaining on MSU’s last attempt. In the loss to Northwestern, UW went just 10-for-13 from the line.
“We just went away from the stuff that made us successful, which was playing defense, staying disciplined and taking it one possession by one possession,” Valentine said of its play down the stretch. “It seems like every time down the floor there was a foul called, and that comes with our discipline. We just gave up a lot of stupid things that we can’t do if we want to win games in the Big Ten.”
After going scoreless for the first 13:22, Valentine scored 11 points in a 3:22 span in the first half that turned a 25-22 deficit into a 36-31 lead with 3:16 remaining until halftime.
That’s when Wisconsin started to come to life. Spurred on by an energetic home crowd, UW closed the half on a 10-0 run by only making one basket. UW went 8-for-9 from the FT line during that stretch and 16-for-19 in the first half – more attempts than four of its conference games this season.
Michigan State’s first 15 points were the direct result of post touches, resulting in uncontested points at the rim or delivering from the free throw line. Even when Michigan State finally hit an outside shot (a 3-pointer by Harris at 12:30), it came as a result of an offensive rebound, one of 17 second-chance points and 25 offensive rebounds in the game for Michigan State.
In the final 9:42 of the half, however, the Badgers didn’t allow the Spartans to score any points in the lane and built a 41-36 lead that proved to be critical as Michigan State made its charge in the second half.
“We knew going in that we had to match their toughness,” said Hayes. “They usually are the type of team that will pray on a weaker team. If you flinch … they’ll run over you. We matched that. We tried to turn their aggression against them.”