Wisconsin's offense continues to struggle with consistency. The Badgers looked good in stretches, particularly to begin the first half with Ethan Happ and Alex Illikainen combining to score 19 of the team’s first 27 points. Not to mention Wisconsin was able to open up the second half on a 13-5 run to lead by as many as 17 points.
But the inconsistencies eventually caught up to the Badgers and allowed Penn State to climb back in the game. Although playing with a double-digit lead for the majority of the second half, UW struggled to find consistency after the 8:29 mark, as the next made field goal didn’t come until a 3-pointer by Nigel Hayes with 2:51 remaining, which extended Wisconsin’s lead to eight points. During that stretch for Wisconsin, the Badgers went 0-for-8 from the field and 5-for-8 from the free throw line.
Like the game against Michigan State, drawing fouls and finding ways of getting to the line served as the best kind of offense. For the second consecutive game, Wisconsin attempted over 30 free throws and finished 22-for-35 (62.9 percent). After Hayes’ 3-pointer snapped the scoring drought, Wisconsin made one more field goal for the rest of the game as Penn State was forced to foul to try and extend the game and to continue to cut into Wisconsin’s lead.
Despite the shooting droughts, the Badgers finished 20-for-48 (41.7 percent) from the field and 4-for-10 (40 percent) from 3-point range. It was Wisconsin’s second time this year shooting 40 percent or better from 3-point range in consecutive games. Happ led Wisconsin with a career-high 20 points on 5-for-11 shooting from the field, as he scored 10 points in each half. Hayes was second with 15 points, Illikainen was third with nine points (all in the first half) and Bronson Koenig had only eight after scoring a career-high 27 against Michigan State.
Penn State was able to force Wisconsin into 11 turnovers, as Shep Garner finished the game with two of Penn State’s three steals. Happ and Zak Showalter each committed two turnovers but Penn State could only convert the miscues into six points.
Wisconsin’s defense made life difficult for Penn State’s offense at times, including allowing only five field goals on 16 first-half shot attempts. The five made field goals were the fewest Wisconsin has allowed in one half this season and marked the eighth time this season where Wisconsin held a team to nine or fewer.
A lot of Penn State’s struggles had to do with Hayes’ defense on Brandon Taylor, who went scoreless in the first half. Taylor’s first points didn’t come until he hit a difficult jumper with 13:08 remaining, but it was Zak Showalter who was defending him on the play after the Nittany Lions were able to force the switch.
Taylor still ended up leading Penn State in scoring with 13 points on 4-for-9 shooting from the field but the defense by Hayes made sure Taylor could never get into a consistent rhythm. Payton Banks was second on the team with 11 points on 4-for-10 shooting from the field while Garner and Devin Foster each finished with 10. Overall Penn State shot 17-44 (38.6 percent) from the field.
Wisconsin’s aggressive defense paid off by forcing double-digit turnovers (13) for the ninth time in the last 10 games. Four different players for the Nittany Lions finished with three turnovers, and Wisconsin was able to display active hands coming up with seven steals (the most since Jan.5). Happ and Hayes each finished with two steals, and Wisconsin was able to convert the extra offensive possessions into eight points.
Wisconsin was able to get Jordan Dickerson by drawing four fouls against him that limited him to nine minutes. Without his big body in the interior, the Badgers won the rebounding battle 36-34 and held the Nittany Lions to nine offensive rebounds and five second-chance points. Moreover, with Dickerson on the bench, UW was able to consistently box out and find ways of tracking down the loose ball to prevent easy buckets at the rim. Wisconsin held Penn State to 12 points in the paint, the fewest Wisconsin has allowed this season.
The game wasn’t pretty at times but it was a win Wisconsin needed to have to win consecutive games for the first time since December. While is frustrating to see Wisconsin turn a 17-point lead with 6:29 to go to as little as three points in the final 30 seconds, it was refreshing to see the Badgers keep their composure and found a way to win the game.
Penn State climbed back in the game by hitting a couple of timely 3-pointers and scoring on six consecutive possessions to cut the lead to one possession. Penn State finished the game 6-for-15 (40 percent) from 3-point range. And if the Nittany Lions weren’t shooting from the perimeter, they were finding ways of getting to the free throw line. Penn State attempted 16 of its 27 free throws in the second half. With 1:11 to go in the game, Penn State was able to get to the free throw line on three straight possessions before Foster made a three to cut Wisconsin’s lead to three with 30 seconds to go.
But Happ was able to help ice the game for Wisconsin and made sure that Penn State couldn’t complete the comeback by going 3-for-4 from the free throw line after Foster’s shot. Happ’s overall game was one of the reasons why Wisconsin was able to build a lead in both halves. Registering his seventh double-double of the season, Happ was active throughout the game of cutting without the ball to open up passing lanes for his teammates to find him underneath the rim. UW finished with nine assists on 20 field goals.
UW finished with 24 points in the paint, and when Penn State’s defense started to collapse on Happ to try and prevent him from getting a good look down low, Happ was able to locate the open man to keep Penn State’s defense honest.
Illikainen was one of the players who benefited, as he finished the first half with nine points on 4-for-5 shooting from the field. It was the most points he has scored in a single half since scoring 10 in the second half against Purdue. Despite going scoreless in the second half, Illikainen registered three of his seven rebounds and helped make sure Penn State settled for jump shots during his 26 minutes on the floor.
Charlie Thomas was the only other player to score off the bench, finishing with four points and one steal. Greg Gard played a total of six players off of his bench, and redshirt senior Jordan Smith saw his first playing time in the second half since the Rutgers game.
Game MVP: Nigel Hayes. While his shooting percentage was low, Hayes deserves a lot of credit for holding Taylor in check and making sure Penn State’s leading scorer could never get into a rhythm. While he didn’t come close to the 25 points he scored against the Spartans, Hayes found a way to end Wisconsin’s scoring drought in the second half, as he was the one of two players (Thomas) to make more than one field goal in the second half, finishing 3-for-5 from the field and 3-for-5 from the free throw line for 10 second-half points. When Hayes wasn’t finding ways to score, he was locating the open man, as he led Wisconsin with five assists and registered one of Wisconsin’s two blocks.