MADISON – With the emergence of forward Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes over the last month, the blueprint for beating the University of Wisconsin appeared to be simple: apply extra pressure underneath the rim and let the Badgers’ inconsistencies from the perimeter create their downfall.
It’s a game plan that Ohio State tried to implement and one that the Badgers took advantage of.
Shaking off a seemingly season-long battle for the perimeter consistentcy, at least for at least one night, Wisconsin drained a season-high 13 3-pointers in a 79-68 victory over the Buckeyes at the Kohl Center Thursday night.
“We believe in our shooters,” said Hayes, who scored 18 of his team-high 21 points in the second half. “We know that they can make shots. We were 13 of 27 (from 3-point range). We’ll always take that if they continue to double in the post.”
The winning streak is now a season-high five for the Badgers (14-9, 6-4 Big Ten), who continue to add critical conference wins to improve a once fleeting N.C.A.A. tournament resume. And while the Badgers had created their winning streak with low-post presence, defense and free throw opportunities, UW had been winning while largely misfiring from 3-point range.
Wisconsin had shot under 35 percent from 3-point range 12 times this year, including a season-worst 2-for-14 Sunday at Illinois, and never made more than eight 3-pointers, a reason the Badgers entered the night 11th in the conference at 33.3 percent.
Not only did the Badgers hit a season high from behind the arc, the Badgers got at least one 3-pointer from six different players and had 15 assists on 28 field goals. And they needed every bit of them considering they went 10-for-17 from the free throw line, were outscored 32-24 in the paint and gave up 19 points off their 11 turnovers.
“They continue to battle and find a way,” said head coach Greg Gard. “The obvious stat is the ability to make 13 threes, but to be able to adjust to some things and get better defensively for the most part as the game went on was key.”
Every major turning point for Wisconsin could be traced back to a 3-pointer. Squandering an 11-0 lead to open the game, Bronson Koenig (13 points) hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to erase the 22-21 Ohio State lead it held for 26 seconds – the only lead the Buckeyes (14-10, 6-5) had all game.
Happ’s 12 points didn’t include a 3-point attempt, but his extra effort – diving on the floor for a loose ball to swat the pass to an open Zak Showalter – gave UW a 44-37 lead early in the second half. Happ added five rebounds and three assists.
Alex Illikainen and Jordan Hill were a combined 5-for-7 from the perimeter off the bench and each hit a critical shot in the final 10 minutes. Off an assist from Ohio native Khalil Iverson, Illikainen hit a 3-pointer from the elbow to put UW up 62-50 – its biggest lead of the game - with 9:25 to go.
“The ones we hit (in the second half) were big and very timely,” said Gard.
After Ohio State made what ended up being its final push, Hill hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with seconds left on the shot clock to give UW a 73-65 lead with 1:39 to go. Hill went 3-for-4 from 3-point range for his nine points and added five rebounds in his 17 minutes.
“He’s been giving us a big lift off the bench,” said Koenig said of Hill. “I love playing with him … He seems to hit a lot of big shots when we need him.”
Ohio State had been holding teams to 32.8 percent from 3-point range but had no answer for Wisconsin’s barrage of perimeter shots.
“We wanted to give as much support as we could down low, but we weren’t as quick as we probably needed to be to get back,” said Ohio State coach Thad Matta. “We didn’t help the helper. Give them credit. They got rolling and it really became contagious.”
Of course not every big shot was a 3-pointer for Wisconsin. The Badgers went 7-for-18 from the 3-point range in the first half, helping them lead 38-32, but Gard felt the offense was settling too much from the outside against a team that averaged 5.7 blocks per game. That was especially true for Hayes, who went 1-for-7 and missed all four of his 3-point shots.
“The whole message to the whole team was we need to touch the post more and get to the free throw line,” said Gard. “I didn’t like shooting 18 threes in a half, because I know they can dry up.”
Of his 18 points in the second half, Hayes went 3-for-3 in the paint, 0-for-2 on his mid-range jump shot, 2-for-4 from the perimeter and 6-for-8 from the free throw line.
“The way to beat them was making sure we got the ball inside, and I needed to make sure I did that a little better,” said Hayes. “I was able to get some easy things going to the rim.”
Finishing with a Big Ten career-high 12 points, Vitto Brown iced the game for Wisconsin when he hit a deep jumper with two seconds on the shot clock with 56 seconds left. That gave UW a 77-68 lead and started a 6-0 run to end the game.
Having played his way out of the starting lineup, averaging 2.8 points over the last four games, Buckeyes freshman JaQuan Lyle scored a game-high 27 points on 11-for-19 shooting off the bench, but the Badgers held Ohio State’s five starters to 22 points on 8-for-24 shooting.
That in part helped Wisconsin get a win over a fellow N.C.A.A. tournament bubble team, something that could yield dividends down the road.
“It tells us something we’ve known forever now and that’s we can play with anybody,” said Koenig. “Not only in conference, but the country. We just have to keep getting better every day and do what we’ve been doing and make every team play our style of basketball.”
In honor of Black History Month and former Wisconsin head coach Bill Cofield, the Badgers debuted special throwback adidas uniforms Thursday that they plan to wear several times throughout February. UW will be wearing the uniforms modeled after those worn in 1976, Cofield’s first year as head coach in Madison.
The first African-American head coach in either basketball or football in Big Ten history, Cofield coached at Wisconsin for six seasons, from 1976 to 1982. Cofield passed away in 1983 at the age of 43 after coaching four future NBA draft picks, Wes Matthews, Joe Chrnelich, Claude Gregory and Larry Petty, in Madison.
Wisconsin was planning to wear the uniforms for one home game but the team requested that they wear the uniforms throughout Black History Month.