CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Chalk this one to resilience for the University of Wisconsin.
Struggling to get to the foul line and disjointed at times on offense with key personnel struggling with their shot or on the bench with foul trouble, the Badgers were able to mostly stick to the game plan in a 63-55 victory over Illinois at the State Farm Center Sunday night.
Winning its ninth straight over the Illini, including a program-record fourth straight on the road, Wisconsin (13-9, 5-4 Big Ten) pushed its season-long winning streak to four and beat a team it had to beat to prevent further damage to its N.C.A.A. resume
Junior Nigel Hayes scored a team-high 17 points, including going 6-for-6 from the free throw line in the final minute. After attempting no free throws the first 29:33, Wisconsin finished the game 17-for-20 from the line.
“That obviously sealed the game but also won the game from a standpoint we were able to get to the bonus quicker,” said Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard. “We were a long ways from it in the first half. To be able to make more than they attempted (15) is always a good sign. That was a positive step.”
There weren't many pretty things to pick out from the stat sheet for the Badgers. In addition to the lack of free throws, Wisconsin went just 2-for-14 from 3-point range, shot 6-for-19 (31.6 percent) in the second half and had only had Hayes score about 12 points.
But Wisconsin had four players contribute between 8-and-11 points and UW’s improving defense held Illinois (10-12, 2-7) to just 18-for-50 (36 percent) from the floor.
“We stuck to what was working for us and didn’t get discouraged (in the second half),” said Gard. “We stayed true to who we are.”
With Vitto Brown (upper body) limited throughout the week, true freshman Khalil Iverson brought critical production. Averaging just 5.2 minutes over the last five games, Iverson played 14 minutes in the first half and contributed six points, three rebounds, two assists and a block.
In the second half he started getting Wisconsin to the foul line. Shooting 52 percent from the line entering the game, Iverson went 4-for-4 and finished with a career-high 10 points in 30 minutes.
“I thought he really practiced well the last couple days, even on the scout team,” said Gard. “He’s starting to figure things out, become more consistent … It’s just a matter of growing. It’s a freshman that’s growing up in front of us.”
And while he didn’t get the start for the first time all season, replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore guard Jordan Hill (his first career start), Brown scored nine points in 12 minutes.
“Sometimes injuries force players to slow down and stay within themselves a little bit more,” said Gard. “I think he did that.”
Down by as many as eight in the first half, Wisconsin took control of the game on a 15-4 run, doing all of it with Ethan Happ (six points) on the bench and most of it with Bronson Koenig (11) sitting right next to him. UW never trailed after the 4:56 mark of the first half.
“That was big,” said Gard of the run. “I thought the backcourt did a good job of keeping us in sync and not getting too riled. Sometimes when you have your guys you’re counting on go out, you get out of whack and change your identity. We even got more true to our identity during that stretch.”