MADISON – Frustrated the whole game because of the way he was being hounded by Michigan’s defense, senior Bronson Koenig knew he had been in enough games and pressure situations to where things could change in an instance. All he needed was a little pep talk from himself.
“I knew I had to get myself going somehow, especially with how the game was going,” Koenig recalled. “I kind of told myself to keep staying aggressive. I’ve taken over games before, so I knew I was capable of it.”
Staying confident and staying on the attack after being bottled up for the first 35 minutes, Koenig delivered in the clutch, scoring 10 straight points to erase a two-point deficit and spark No.17 Wisconsin to a 68-64 victory over the Wolverines at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers (15-3, 4-1 Big Ten) had been winning home games by an average of 27.6 points, but were forced to scratch and claw to move into a tie for first place in the Big Ten with their 17th straight home victory.
Trailing by as many as eight points in the second half and six points with 6:29 to go, Koenig had only been able to get free for five looks at the rim, so Wisconsin called up the “elevator play.”
A play UW hadn’t run since last year and wasn’t in the playbook until Sunday, Koenig cut between a double screen delivered by Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ underneath the 3-point line, creating an open look he buried to give UW a 52-49.
“Something we wanted to take a look at,” head coach Greg Gard said of the play. “Different things for different guys, whether we needed to get someone going or keep somebody going or the opportunity presents itself.”
One possession later, Koenig – calling for the ball open along the baseline – hit another in front of the Badgers’ bench off a feed from Nigel Hayes – who drew Koenig’s defender - with 4:30 remaining. It was UW’s first lead in 12 minutes and one it wouldn’t relinquish thanks to Koenig scoring 10 points in two minutes, five seconds.
“We made a mistake (on the second three),” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “You just can’t give him that type of room to be able to get that done.”
It was hard to say for certain but Koenig did subscribe to the notion that his back-to-back drives to the rim that resulted in layups opened those perimeter opportunities for him, the first of which was a crossover on the perimeter against Duncan Robinson that resulted in a reversed layup.
“My teammates did a great job of screening for me on several occasions,” Koenig said.
The points in the paint were critical early. Wisconsin scored 32 points inside and that relentlessness attacking the post helped Wisconsin salvage a 26-21 halftime lead, as the Badgers scored 16 points in the paint with Happ (eight), Brown (six) and Hayes (two) doing the damage.
Those three - Brown (13), Hayes (13) and Happ (11) – all finished in double figures.
“When things weren’t going well, they didn’t flinch,” Gard said. “They didn’t give in to the physicality of it.”
Michigan (12-7, 2-4) has built its roster to play like Wisconsin – two forwards who can stretch the floor, limit fouls and don’t turn the ball over. While they may look the part, Michigan wasn’t ready for the real deal.
While the Badgers forced the nation’s stingiest team (9.1 turnovers per game) into 10, miscues, they drew 21 fouls against the country’s most disciplined teams (14.2 fouls per game). UW was in the bonus for the final 14:25 of the game.
Michigan forwards D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner suffered the most, combining to shoot 2-for-11 with four turnovers both fouling out of the game (and later joined by Derrick Walton Jr.).
“Having us in foul trouble obviously doesn’t help us,” Wagner said, as UW finished 14-for-24 from the line. “We’ve got to find a way to be physical without fouling, especially in the second half.”
Entering tops in field goal percentage (49.1 percent) through five conference games, the Wolverines finished at 43.1 percent and had only to only two points on their final 10 first-half possessions. The only time Michigan had consistent offense was when Happ was on the bench.
Trailing 28-23 when Happ exited with his third foul, the Wolverines went on a 13-1 burst to take a 36-29 lead with 13:16, as eight of those points have come as a result of Michigan attacking the post.
The Badgers dug itself out of it with a 13-5 run to tie the game at 43 with 8:16 remaining, but Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman hit a 3-pointer to give Michigan the lead back and Robinson hit one on the next possession to put the Wolverines up six.
The Badgers responded with Zak Showalter cleaning up an offensive rebound before handing the reins to Koenig from there. When Hayes dropped a 3-pointer from the top of the key, the Badgers’ run was 15-0 and the Wolverines couldn’t recover.
After scoring 28 points in their first 40 possessions, the Badgers had 38 over their final 24 possessions, helped by making 12 of their final 16 shots over the final 11:55
“There were numerous players who made big plays for us,” Gard said.
Senior Zak Irvin scored 20 points to lead Michigan, which put four players in double figures but still lost for the 17th time in the last 19 games against Wisconsin.
“Two great wins,” Beilein said. “Those games were great freaking wins.”