EAST LANSING, Mich. – With eight teams within two losses of each other in the Big Ten standings, head coach Greg Gard admitted the final stretch of conference play is going to be fun.
Unfortunate for him and his University of Wisconsin players, the Big Ten wasn’t very enjoyable Thursday night.
Playing its second top 10 team on the road in a week, Wisconsin never found its rhythm offensively in an ugly 69-57 defeat to No.8 Michigan State, which led wire-to-wire and by as many as 22 points, at the Breslin Center – better known as UW’s new house or horrors.
Not only did it see its seven game winning streak, the longest in the nation among major conference teams, come to a crashing halt, Wisconsin (16-10, 8-5 Big Ten) dropped 2.5 games out of first place with five games to go and became one of five conference teams with five losses.
And while UW’s defense was marginal, it was mainly the offense that extended UW’s losing streak at the Breslin Center to nine.
Averaging 72.7 points on the winning streak, the Badgers were held to their lowest point total since Dec.29 after shooting only 33.9 percent.
“We left a lot of points on the board early, which allowed us to dig a hole,” said Gard. “Obviously when you are playing a team like this, this good, especially at home, you can’t have a hole to dig out of.”
Wisconsin beat Michigan State in mid-January by attacking the post and getting to the free throw line 36 times. This time the Badgers went only 11-for-17, settling for the long range jump shots that finally stopped falling. After making double-digit 3-pointers in three consecutive games, Wisconsin finished 6-for-20 from beyond the arc.
The team-wide shooting epidemic affected everybody to some degree but UW’s two leading scorers suffered the brunt of it.
Nigel Hayes – averaging 20.4 points per game on UW’s seven game winning streak – missed 12 of his 13 shots and finished with a season-low five points after getting hounded all night by the 6-10 Deyonte Davis and his cohorts.
“They tried to make his life as hard as possible,” said Gard. “We need to rally, get behind him and keep pushing forward.”
Bronson Koenig – a player Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo dubbed “the Spartan killer” after his career-high 27 points Jan.17 – finished with 12. He scored UW’s first points, attempted only two more shots in the first half and didn’t attempt his first shot in the second half until there was 6:22 remaining.
Ethan Happ scored a team-high 18 points but became a footnote to Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine. Averaging 22.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists in the last eight contests, Valentine finished with 24 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds.
Valentine is the only Big Ten player in the last 20 years to score at least 20 points with 10 assists in three straight games. Bryn Forbes added 17 points (4-for-8 from 3-point range) to help lead Michigan State (22-5, 9-5) to its sixth win in the last seven games.
“Michigan State made us pay for any mistake that we made,” said Gard. “Whether it was on the defensive rebounding. We started to claw back, we get them to take a tough shot and then we give up an offensive rebound. We made some mistakes on threes in terms of the route we took defensively that gave them open threes. They weren’t as well guarded as they should be, and we weren’t aggressive touching the post early like I wanted to be.”
As one would imagine, things were ugly almost from the start, a complete 180 from UW’s 13-point road victory at then-No.2 Maryland Saturday.
After Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said the Badgers won the game with their play in the first 10 minutes, Wisconsin went scoreless for 6:21 from the 18:55 mark to 12:34. As a result, Michigan State jumped out to a 14-3 lead by getting six field goals by six different players. Valentine scored one of the buckets and registered the assist on the other five.
In fact, the first basket the Spartans had where Valentine wasn’t directly involved came with 6:40 left in the first half with Michigan State up 25-12. UW went 7-for-28 from the field and its 23 first-half points were the fewest since its last loss Jan.12.
What kind of night was it? On one possession, Jordan Hill took 12 dribbles (eight outside the perimeter) before hosting up a 3-pointer that missed everything. Khalil Iverson secured the offensive rebound but airballed his off-balanced attempt with two seconds on the shot clock, resulting in a turnover.
A 24-10 run over an 11-minutes stretch in the second half sealed things for Michigan State, but Gard credited his team for fighting to the finish line. UW closed the game on a 15-7 run that had Happ score six of his 14 second-half points.
“He showed some maturity,” Gard said of Happ. “That was a sign of the right direction. I think a freshman took a big step forward for us with Ethan.”
No time to mope, UW has two days off before hosting Illinois Sunday to keep pace in a crowded conference field.
“We’ll grow from this; we’ll get better from it,” said Gard. “It’s a great learning experience for us.”