It was evident early on that Wisconsin brought its poor shooting back with them from East Lansing, finishing the first half an ugly 8-for-28. But despite Wisconsin missing its first three shots of the second half and getting down by as many as 13 points, the offense was able to finally crack through over the last 11:55 against Illinois. UW went 8-for-10 from the field, which included them making its last five attempts.
It was Ethan Happ (20 points), Nigel Hayes (17) and Bronson Koenig (14) who were responsible for sparking the second-half run, as the three combined to score 36 of Wisconsin’s 45 second-half points on a combined 9-for-12 shooting from the field. It was a good turnaround for both Koenig and Hayes, as the two struggled on Thursday against Michigan State and in the first half against Illinois (Koenig went 1-for-7, Hayes 0-for-5).
With Vitto Brown scoring nine points and Zak Showalter having seven points (all in the second half), Wisconsin’s starters scored 67 of the team’s 69 points (Alex Illikainen had the other two). Overall Wisconsin finished the game 19-for-44 (43.2 percent) from the field.
Going 5-for-20 from 3-point range, including 1-for-13 in the first half, Wisconsin found success when they touched the post, especially in the second half. UW scored 12 points in the paint in each half, but UW’s aggression inside as the game wore on caused Illinois’ foul total to skyrocket and the Badgers to get to the free throw line.
The Badgers were in the bonus by the 13:29 mark in the second half and took advantage of Illinois’ foul trouble by going 19-for-25 (76 percent) in the second half and 26-for-33 (78.8 percent) overall. And the inside presence improved things slightly from the perimeter, as UW went 4-for-7 from 3-point range in the second half.
With Wisconsin shooting 68.8 percent in the second half, there were many opportunities for offensive rebounds. UW had four of its five offensive rebounds in the first half, and the Badgers turned those five second chances into eight points. Happ’s three offensive rebounds tied a game-high.
Considering the injuries it has had to deal with, Illinois’ offense is pretty straightforward – a heavy dose of Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. The duo combined to score 35 of Illinois’ 60 points and shoot 12-for-30 (40 percent) from the field. But after the two combined to score 20 of Illinois’ 29 first-half points, the Badgers’ defense was able to crack down on both of them. In the final 20 minutes, Nunn made only one field goal and Hill needed 10 attempts and four free throws to score 12 points.
Outside of Hill, Nunn, and Michael Finke (8 points on 3-for-8), five other players scored but none more than four points. Overall Illinois shot 22-for-56 (39.3 percent) from the field.
After making some adjustments, Wisconsin’s interior defense was able to take away production at the rim and held the Illini to 12 points. Happ was one of UW’s best assets inside, using quick footwork and active hands to generate a career-high six steals. As a team UW finished with nine steals.
The one drawback of taking away the post was that Illinois found open looks from 3-point range. Sluggish at times getting out to shooters and contesting shots, Illinois shot 40.9 percent (9-for-22) from the perimeter, including making six in the first half to help them jump out to an early lead. Nunn led Illinois with four made threes in the game on eight attempts.
With Wisconsin consistently pestering Illinois on offense, the Badgers were rewarded by forcing six turnovers in each half. With Wisconsin trailing for over 20 minutes, the Badgers needed to be able to create turnovers in order to chip away at the lead, and the 16 points it scored off Illinois’ turnovers were critical. In addition to the turnovers, Wisconsin’s defense needed to string consecutive defensive possessions together after the Illini made eight of their first nine shots after halftime. UW helped Illinois regress to the mean by holding them scoreless for 7:13 from 12:22 to 5:09. Illinois went 0-for-6 from the field during that stretch, which turned the entire game around with UW going on a 17-0 run.
With how Wisconsin shot the ball in the first half, the Badgers needed to go back to basics in the second half, reverting back to the things that helped them win seven straight game. UW was able to do that with a concentrated effort to get the ball in the post, get to the free throw line and get stops defensively. Wisconsin overcame its 28.6 percent shooting in the first half by making 68.8 percent (11-for-16) in the second half, marking the third time this season Wisconsin shot above 60 percent from the field in the second half.
Having the 6-10 Maverick Morgan foul out after only seven minutes ensured that the Badgers would be able to generate the post touches it needed in order to make the rally, not to mention getting to the free throw line to score with the clock stop to cut into the Illinois lead. It also meant that Illinois couldn’t double team in the post as much as they did early in the game when Hayes or Happ usually had two guys smothering them whenever they received an entry pass.
Despite the defensive pressure Wisconsin faced, they did a good job of taking care of the ball. Finishing with seven turnovers, Wisconsin finished with single digit turnovers in back-to-back games, resulting in the Illinois only scoring six points off the mistakes. And if that wasn’t enough, UW limited Illinois, which won the rebounding battle 33-31, to only five second-chance points off nine offensive rebounds.
Game MVP: Ethan Happ. Despite Koenig and Hayes rebounding in the second half to provide critical offense, it was Happ who put together two consistent halves to either help Wisconsin stay in the game or spark the Badgers’ run. His aggressive play was able to help get Morgan in foul trouble and open up offense for him in the low post.
Leading UW in scoring for the sixth time this season (UW is 5-1 when he has the high total), Happ was patient with his shot all night and his high-percentage looks helped him go 5-for-7 from the field. His strong night was more than just the 20 points, however, as he registered his eighth double-double of the season, collected 12 rebounds (team-high nine defensive boards) and his aggressiveness on defense without fouling was impressive. Being able to consistently read the passes that were going into the post, Happ was mostly successful with his gambles of when to step in front of a pass or poke the ball loose from behind, as his six steals were a career high.