BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The word “composed” was thrown around early and often during Wisconsin's week-long break, knowing full well the two tough tasks that were fast approaching on the horizon. How many times exactly?
“Over 20,” sophomore Ethan Happ said, smiling. “Under 35.”
That poise made sure Wisconsin’s mastery of Indiana - even after a topsy turvy first week of conference play - remained a reliable constant.
Happ led four Wisconsin players in double figures with a game-high 19 points to help No.13 Wisconsin hold off a desperate Indiana team, 75-68, at Assembly Hall Tuesday night.
“We’ve not had a good week,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said.
He also hadn’t had a good career against the Badgers since relocating to the Big Ten. Wisconsin (13-2, 2-0 Big Ten) has won 16 of 18 since Crean arrived and six of the last eight in this historic venue. Most importantly, the Badgers weren’t perfect but still extended its winning streak to nine.
Wisconsin hadn’t played a game closer than nine points the entire season, so finding itself in a back-and-forth affair was something new for this group. Of course this group is mostly old veterans who had been down this road before, going 11-9 in games decided by 10 points or less a year ago.
A one-possession game from 15:12 to 6:10 in the second half, Wisconsin relied on its veterans. Happ, Bronson Koenig (17 points), Zak Showalter (14) and Nigel Hayes (12) scored 31 of Wisconsin’s 37 points in the second half, including 22 in a row down the stretch.
“We just tried to slow them down as much as possible, play our game and control the tempo,” Koenig said. “Lucky for us we made enough plays down the stretch and got enough stops.”
The work down the stretch was methodical and balanced. After Hayes and Happ attacked and scored in the low post, Showalter did the same, executing a little pump fake to open up a clean alley for him to attack the basket. One possession later he nailed a 3-pointer to push the score to 66-59, UW’s largest in 12 minutes.
“We haven’t been in many close like games like this all year,” Showalter said. “Both of our losses were double-digit losses and none of our wins were this close. This was a good test on the road in a hostile environment to try to have to pull one out like this. It’s good to see that we’re able to do that.”
Happ scored 11 of his points in the second half, but his defensive stand on center Thomas Bryant might be the standout play. After hitting a layup to make it 68-63 with 1:51 remaining, Happ – playing with four fouls – prevented Bryant from attacking the lane and forced him to take an off-target fade away.
Happ recovered the rebound and Vitto Brown hit his own bucket of the second half – a 3-pointer – with 41 seconds left to make it 71-63. Ball game.
“With three minutes to go and (Happ) got his fourth, that was the biggest debate in my mind whether to pull him or not,” head coach Greg Gard said. “I asked him in the timeout what he thought. He said, ‘I’ll play and I’ll be smart.’ You’ve got to trust your players and obviously I trust him. He did a great job down the stretch.”
Losers of three straight, Indiana (10-5, 0-2) entered the conference’s top rebounding team at 44.0 per game, Wisconsin entered as the conference’s top defensive rebounding team at 27.0 per contest and both were tied at the top of the conference with a plus-13.8 rebounding margin.
The Hoosiers also led the conference in scoring (86.5 point per game) and field goal percentage (49.8 percent) and were second in 3-point percentage (39.1 percent).
Wisconsin allowed them to shoot 53.1 percent from the field on 61 possessions, numbers the Hoosiers helped generated by scoring 38 points in the paint. Twenty of those came in the first half, benefited by 13 second-chance points that helped erase a Wisconsin lead that was as many as 14 points.
A friendly reminder by Gard to box out in the second half helped the numbers recover, holding the Hoosiers to only 12 rebounds (three offensive) in the second half and two second-chance points.
Considering the point total and holding them to 5 of 15 from 3-point range, UW can live with losing the rebounding battle 32-25.
“It was an emphasis at halftime,” Happ said. “They had 13 points off offensive rebounds. Obviously if we don’t let them get that, it’s not as close of a game. That was definitely an emphasis that coach put in.”
Another emphasis was the start. Indiana had four of its 13 turnovers in its first five possessions and rotated poorly, leaving Koenig wide open for three 3-pointers. He buried all of them, including two in front of Indiana’s bench, and helped spark Wisconsin to a 13-0 run to open the contest.
“I don’t even know what to tell you about the start of the game,” Crean said. “It made absolutely no sense to me that they were giving them as much space as we gave them.”
Koenig was 1 of 9 in Wisconsin’s 82-79 overtime win over the Hoosiers in Madison last January and was 6 of his last 26. Having a couple go down early got him in a groove that never went away, even when he had to sit on the bench for the final nine minutes of the first half with two fouls.
So even though UW gave away that lead, Koenig still had his rhythm.
“It was nice to get in a flow like that,” Koenig said. “It’s nice to knock the first couple down, just because that’s increases my confidence so much. When I knock the first one down, I know the majority of them are going to go in after that.”
Juwan Morgan, De’Ron Davis and Robert Johnson were Indiana’s leading scorers at 12 points. Wisconsin held Indiana’s four double-digit scorers all under their season averages.
Even with the recent success here and just up I-65, Wisconsin is a combined 14-68 in Assembly Hall and Mackey Arena. It’s part of the reason why the Badgers – just two games into conference play – weren’t popping any leftover champagne bottles heading for the team bus.
When asked who he sees as his team’s toughest competition, Gard quickly said “Purdue.” Why’s that?
“They’re next,” Gard said. “We take it one at a time.”