After the stat line he put it, it was one of Happ’s first breaks all afternoon and a combination of elation and exhaustion.
One of the big difference makers in a gritty gut check, Happ scored a career-high 28 points – 22 in the second half – to help No.17 Wisconsin starve off Minnesota, 78-76, in overtime Saturday at Williams Arena.
“For our team to have a win like this on the road against a really good team is fantastic,” Happ said. “We didn’t play great the whole game. We battled back. That’s a true test of character for our whole team.”
Senior Nigel Hayes added 21 points and paced things early for the Badgers (16-3, 5-1 Big Ten), which moved back into a first-place tie with Maryland after dispatching the Gophers (15-4, 3-4) for a sixth straight time.
Senior Bronson Koenig was held in check early but hit two big 3-pointers that proved to be the difference in a game that featured 18 ties and 17 lead changes.
“If you were a fan, one heck of a college basketball game here today,” head coach Greg Gard said. “Proud of how they gutted it out.”
Getting off to a slow start has been nothing new for Happ, who was shooting just 15-for-39 in his last three games. Held to only five points in the first half, Happ showed a ferociousness attacking the rim that sparked Wisconsin’s offense. He scored 14 straight points at one point and helped UW have a 44-24 edge in the paint.
“The coaches have been telling me something all year long and I realize that I can finally start doing that,” Happ said, likely referring to but not confirming taking over games. “My teammates were finding me all game long and getting me the ball. I finally started to finish.”
In addition to adding 12 rebounds, six assists, five blocks, one steal, one turnover and only two fouls, Happ nearly drew all five fouls against Minnesota forward Reggie Lynch and regained his rhythm from the free throw line by going 6-for-9 and hit a critical one with 12.9 seconds left in overtime.
Happ couldn’t do it alone, however, and got a big lift from the team’s two senior leaders.
Koenig was bottled up and prevented from getting clean looks for the second straight game. Having a penchant for hitting the big shot, Koenig lost the handle going up for a shot that could have won the game in overtime.
He made up for it in the extra session by scoring six of his 11 points, including a 3-pointer off a double screen with 38.7 seconds left that put the Badgers up 77-76.
“The kid keeps making shots,” Gard said of Koenig. “He’s a crunch-time shot-maker.”
Playing a game-high 42 minutes, Hayes scored 13 of his 21 points in the opening half to help the Badgers slog through another poor shooting first half. Outside Hayes no player contribute more than five points and the Badgers managed only 13 buckets on 31 attempts against the conference’s top field-goal percentage defense.
Once Happ started getting into a rhythm, Wisconsin’s shooting percentage skyrocketed up to 58.3 percent in the second half before finishing at 50 percent 31-for-62.
Amir Coffey scored 19 points and Springs added 16 for the Gophers (15-5, 3-4), who lost their third straight. Springs – who was a part of the Milwaukee team that beat the Badgers in the Kohl Center last season – hit a 3-pointer with 12 second left in regulation that ended a 5:13 scoreless drought and a 5-0 Badgers run to force overtime. He wasn’t so lucky with his off-balanced shot for the win.
Minnesota averaged 1.06 points per possession against the conference’s best defense in part by going 9-for-17 (52.9 percent) from 3-point range (the Gophers entered the game shooting 34 percent as a team from beyond the arc).
After winning just eight games a year ago, Minnesota looked ready to take a step forward when it scored nine points on its first five possessions of overtime. After Koenig’s 3-pointer, Wisconsin kept the Gophers off the board on their last two possessions to earn the win.
“Coach basically said we haven’t even played our best basketball yet, so let’s do it in these five minutes,” Happ said of Gard's message entering overtime. “We still didn’t play our best basketball, but it was enough to get the win.”