The junior evidently remembered, as it was his clutch shooting from the line that propelled the suddenly surging Badgers to another huge victory in the past nine days.
“This is another visual reminder because we’ve done all the talking that we’re better than (our record), we’re capable of playing better and capable of winning,” said Hayes, who went 17-for-22 from the free throw line to give him 31 points in Wisconsin’s 82-79 overtime victory over No.19 Indiana in front of a raucous sold-out Kohl Center crowd Tuesday.
“We’re actually doing that. We’re seeing the results. We always preach taking care of the little things. We’re finally starting to do that, and it’s paying dividends for us.”
Freshman Ethan Happ contributed a career-high 25 points to go along with eight rebounds, four steals and two blocks, while sophomore Jordan Hill also set a new career-high with 13 points on 5-for-5 shooting in 32 minutes off the bench.
The win gives Wisconsin (12-9, 4-4 Big Ten) its first three game winning streak of the season and starts to finally make them look like a N.C.A.A. tournament team in the process. Make no mistake they have a long way – and a lot of wins – to go before getting back on the bubble, but Hayes and Co. delivered in a game it had to have.
“What’s so neat about this team is they’ve come together,” said head coach Greg Gard, who commended his team for finding a way despite 16 turnovers resulting in 21 Indiana points. “The chemistry and the culture in the locker room has grown tighter and tighter over the last five weeks. I don’t know if we be in position to be able pull something like this out six-eight weeks ago.”
The belief in close games hasn’t always been there. Before Jan.17, Wisconsin was 2-7 in games decided by six points or less, including a three game conference skid that started with a 59-58 setback at Indiana Jan.5. That game Hayes shot 3-for-13 from the floor, 8-for-11 from the free throw line and couldn’t deliver the little plays late.
Those now seem to be a thing of the past, especially now that the Badgers are getting to the free throw line. After averaging 14 free throws through its first five Big Ten games, Wisconsin went 29-for-36 in the one-point win over No.4 Michigan State, 22-for-35 in the six-point road win at Penn State and 28-for-37 Tuesday.
“They are real committed to going inside,” said Indiana coach Tom Crean, as the Hoosiers (17-4, 7-1) committed 19 turnovers to lose their 14 straight in Madison dating back to 1998. “There’s no question about that. When they were winning they were shooting 29 (free throws). When they were losing they were shooting 13-14. They really are making a concerted effort.”
The critical moments in the game are too numerous to mention, but always seemed to involve either Hayes, Happ, Hill or Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell down the stretch
In overtime alone, Hayes had two offensive rebounds on the first offensive possession that led to free throws from Happ, scored six of UW’s 11 points and delivered on pesky defense throughout, including blanketing Ferrell (team-high 30 points) at the end of regulation that led to a tough jump shot and the overtime session.
“We had a great game plan,” said Hayes. “We wanted to try and confuse him. He wanted to use the ball screen and hope Ethan would switch on to him. We did a great job of camouflaging that … I knew I could give him a couple feet because my length would allow me to recover.”
In the final minute of regulation and overtime, Hayes was a perfect 8-for-8.
“Based on the way they came out, they wanted to play me physically,” said Hayes, who unofficially drew 17 fouls. “Maybe they thought that’s something I would not like, that I would not respond to well. I tried to use that against them.”
Hill registered a block on OG Anunoby’s 3-pointer from the corner after Happ delivered a nasty baseline spin move to make 74-71 Wisconsin. He also hit 1-for-2 free throws with 12.2 seconds left to make it a two possession game after registering a key offensive rebounding following a Happ block.
Throughout the game Hill pestered Ferrell, who got his points, and made a critical play when he poked the ball away from the Indiana senior to engineer a Hayes’ 3-point play to make it 61-55 in the second half.
For Hill, who was 1-for-12 and averaged 0.8 points over the last four games, it was all about staying positive.
“I just played aggressively and believed in myself; it’s really that simple,” said Hill. “There’s really not a lot to it. I just had to make sure my confidence never wavered.”
After sinking Wisconsin with the winning jump shot in Bloomington, Ferrell did his best several times down the stretch to do it again. In addition to his attempt at the end of regulation, he hit a 3-pointer (one of five makes on six attempts) off a screen to give Indiana a 69-67 lead with 1:13 remaining – its first in over nine minutes of game time.
One possession later, Ferrell beat Happ off a switch for an uncontested layup to the rim with 23 seconds to go to retake the two-point lead. He was 1-for-4 in overtime but hit an open 3-pointer with 5.3 seconds left to make it interesting at 80-79 UW.
That’s as close as Indiana would get, as Hayes knocked down two free throws and stole a wayward inbounds pass to wrap up another huge result.
“We had to play with heart,” said Hill. “Sometimes we weren’t doing that. When you play with heart, play with pride and refuse to lose, it’s really important. I think there were points early on in the season when we lost games, it was kind of because we didn’t seem to care as much as we should have or waited too late to start caring. As we start trending in the right direction, we care more around every possession (and) in practice.”