MINNEAPOLIS – Taking a break from the headache of Minnesota prep earlier this week, Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard found a calendar and counted the days since he took over for head coach Bo Ryan in mid-December. The total number leading to Wednesday night was 78.
And while it may be only a little more than two-and-a-half months, the differences between the Badgers then and now are far apart.
While at times making things tougher on themselves than it needed to be, Wisconsin led by as many as 21 points and easily took care of business with a 62-49 victory over undermanned Minnesota Wednesday night.
Although Indiana won the outright conference title Tuesday, eliminating Wisconsin and three other teams in the process, the Badgers (20-10, 12-5 Big Ten) won for the 11th time in 12 games, won at least 20 games for the 10th straight season and clinched a top four finish in the conference for a 15th consecutive year, extending their Big Ten record.
“It's a credit to our players with how they responded,” said Gard. “For those guys to be able to rally and grow and mature as they have is a huge credit to them. We're not in this position without those guys. They're the ones that have led the way through this. We've just tried to guide them and point them in the right direction.”
Three players scored in double figures for Wisconsin, which shot a blistering 55.2 percent in the first half and never trailed by fewer than 11 points despite shooting 34.8 percent (8-for-23) from the field in the second half.
“Coach Ryan built a legacy here,” said freshman Ethan Happ, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds for his ninth double-double on the year. “We were in danger early in the season of not living up to that. That was definitely in the back of my mind. I'm sure the team felt the same way."
Wisconsin asserted its dominance from the opening tip. The Badgers scored eight of their first 14 points in the paint, hit a pair of 3-pointers off touches in the post and saw Bronson Koenig score seven points with a pair of assists.
And after a slight lull, UW scored on 10 straight possessions, resulting in 25-9 run to give the Badgers a 20-point lead. Koenig scored 12 of his team-high 14 points in the first half and the rout was on.
“You've got your rival in town, you want to have everybody juiced up, and you just didn't have that feel,” said Minnesota coach Richard Pitino. “It's hard when you don't have all the options.”
After suspending three players for the remainder of the season Tuesday, Minnesota (8-21, 2-15) suited up only six scholarship players and never mounted much of a challenge, especially with senior Joey King out of rhythm. The lone senior on the Gophers’ roster, King finished with six points on 1-for-9 shooting, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range.
Stephon Sharp scored 16 points to lead Minnesota, which shot 33.3 percent from the field and were held to a season-low 49 points. Wisconsin has now held 10 teams to season-low point totals.
“This was a hard game to play,” said Gard. “We deal with one lineup on Monday, a different lineup on Tuesday. As much as we try to make sure that our focus stays on us, (our guys) understand what's going on.”
While being sharp at times, Wisconsin also showed a lack of cohesion when the game appearing to be well in hand, making things interesting by scoring one point in 10 possessions as Minnesota went on an 11-1 run to cut the lead to 52-41 with 7:57 remaining.
But after Ahmad Gilbert missed two free throws that would have cut the lead to 10, Happ made one of two free throws and Vitto Brown (12 points) hit a 3-pointer to boost the lead to 56-41. UW didn’t led by fewer than 13 the rest of the way.
“We left a lot of missed shots at the basket and a lot of bad turnovers and bad defense,” said Brown. “There is definitely going to be a lot of film to watch and a lot to learn from after this game; if I was going to take one positive away that’s what it would be.”
Closing the regular season Sunday at Purdue, a win for Wisconsin would ensure another streak continues of the Badgers never playing a Big Ten tournament game before the quarterfinals. The agreement across the board, however, was that a better effort will need to be delivered against one of the teams that added to UW’s early-conference woes.
"A win is a win, especially in the Big Ten on the road, but there was that feeling that we were up big and we wanted to continue to build on the lead,” said Happ. “Obviously Coach wasn't happy with us. We weren't happy with ourselves that we let them back in the game."