MADISON – Playing on a team a year ago that had a veteran corps that built its chemistry and synergy over the course of three-plus years, Nigel Hayes recalled that whenever that squad faced an adverse situation, all the veterans had to do was give one another “a look” to turn things around.
It’s taken a few months, and a couple ugly losses, but the look of urgency between players was again delivered and understood in a critical juncture in their season.
“It’s definitely a sign,” said Hayes, one of the catalyst for Wisconsin in a 69-60 victory over injury-plagued Illinois at the Kohl Center. “Of course it’s not the same as it was last year. We all know that, but we’re developing that winning way.”
The Wisconsin team that began the season likely would not have been able to pick itself off the court after trailing by as many as 13 points. But the team that has now won eight of nine certainly did, executing a 28-4 run that ignited the crowd, saw shooting become contagious and keep itself a half game out of fourth place.
After missing its first three shots in the second half, Wisconsin (17-10, 9-5 Big Ten) made 11 of its final 13 to register the program’s biggest comeback since erasing a 15-point deficit to beat No.1 Ohio State in Feb. 2011.
“We were resilient and matured a little bit tonight,” said junior Bronson Koenig, “which is good to see.”
Avoiding its fourth sub-100 RPI loss at home, nobody has matured more in the last two games than freshman Ethan Happ. After scoring 18 points against Michigan State, Happ finished with 20 points, 14 rebounds and a career-high six steals.
It was Happ’s eighth double-double of the season, a stark contrast from scoring only six points in the team’s first meeting in Champaign Jan.31, and production that was critical throughout.
His nine points and seven rebounds were one of the few bright spots in a first half that saw Wisconsin go 8-for-28 from the field and 1-for-13 from 3-point range, while his six points, four rebounds and four steals over the 10:04 run was the fuel that kept Wisconsin’s fire burning.
“He’s tough to cover one-on-one because he’s such a good ball handler down (in the post) and he has good balance,” said Illinois coach John Groce, who is 0-7 against Wisconsin. “He can drive you baseline, he can come to the middle of the floor, he’s got good touch and I think he plays the game the right way.”
Happ wasn’t the only player to find his footing. Hayes had missed 17 of 18 shots dating back to Thursday’s 69-57 loss at No.8 Michigan State, but scored six of his 17 points on a 15-0 run to put the Badgers in front 48-46 with 6:27 to go. After not making his first field goal until the 11:55 mark of the second half, Hayes went 3-for-4 the rest of the way.
Koenig and junior Zak Showalter were equally important. Koenig scored 12 of his 14 point after halftime and hit a vital 3-pointer – one of only five makes on 20 attempts for UW - with 7:11 remaining to the score at 46. Showalter scored all seven of his points in the second half while added five assists, four rebounds and plenty of hustle plays.
Admitting there was a hangover from the Michigan State loss two days earlier, Wisconsin struggled for flow on both ends in the first half and right after halftime, contributing to scoring only one point over an 11 possession stretch that dug the hosts into an 11-point deficit
“We had to start getting some stops, first and foremost,” said Koenig. “We had to get the ball inside, get to the free throw line, playing like we played during the seven-game winning streak, basically, because we kind of got away from that.”
But there was no stopping them when they finally figured things out, scoring 34 points over their final 19 possessions with only two empty possessions. Part of that came with UW attacking the rim and drawing the second half’s first seven fouls, getting into the bonus with 12:43 remaining and going 26-for-33 from the line.
“The old saying is,” said Hayes, “if you make more free throws than the other team attempts, you usually win.”
Losing its 10 straight to Wisconsin, Illinois (12-15, 4-10) made eight of its first nine shots (88.9 percent) in the second half and led by as many as 13 points with 12:22 remaining but quickly cooled. For the remainder of the game, Illinois had 12 fouls to only three made field goals, a result of how the Badgers altered guarding the ball screen.
And while the team got a little momentum of stringing some stops together, the comeback really all started with a look.
“When we were losing the close games, we didn’t have the habits to win because teams that win find ways to win,” said Hayes. “Teams that are not comfortable with that do things to make themselves lose. We’re slowing creeping over into that (winning) area. When we get in situations like that, we are able to look at one another and know that we can count on this guy, count on Ethan, count on Bronson and we can all do our jobs individually, which collectively will help us.”