CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – At the midpoint of the Big Ten season, it’s evident that the University of Wisconsin is still looking for its offense to completely click for 40 minutes. With the way its defense is playing, however, the Badgers haven’t needed much to stay on top of the Big Ten.
No.10 Wisconsin held an 11th team to a season-low point total, as the Badgers’ length and experience flustered Illinois in a 57-43 victory at the State Farm Center Tuesday.
“As seniors we don’t like to shoot well anyway,” senior Nigel Hayes joked. “We would just rather play defense.”
Sophomore Ethan Happ registered his eighth double-double of the season with 14 points and 13 rebounds and Hayes added 11 points and eight rebounds for Wisconsin (19-3, 8-1 Big Ten), which won its second road game in four days to keep pace with Maryland in the conference race.
The Terps improved to 9-0 away from home with a 77-70 victory at Ohio State that ended just before UW tipped off.
The Badgers’ big men dominated the game in the post, out-rebounding Illinois 45-36 and securing 19 offensive rebounds. Five of those came on the final possession of the first half, as UW had the ball for the remaining 1:41 and capitalized with a Vitto Brown’s put-back with a second left to give UW a 13-point lead entering halftime.
Six different players for Wisconsin had an offensive rebound, including Happ with six, Brown with four and reserve Aaron Moesch with all three of his coming on that last first-half possession.
“Any time you have a chance to give guys another shot at it after they miss a shot, that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “We were giving up too many (offensive rebounds) on our end, so we figured we try to even it out.”
Illinois (13-10, 3-7) came in shooting 49.9 percent from the floor and 42.8 percent from 3-point range in 12 home games this season, but shot 27.6 percent from the field and 5 of 21 from beyond the arc, including 1 of 11 in the second half.
The Illini have lost 11 straight to the Badgers, including five on their home court, and been held under 70 points in 23 of the last 24 meetings against UW.
“Terrific defensively,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said, “maybe as well as we’ve played defensively in terms of what we did in the half court.”
Part of that total was due to the Badgers holding Malcolm Hill – fifth-leading scorer in the Big Ten at 17.5 points – to only 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting.
“I think we tried to do a good job of making it tough for him to get open looks,” Hayes said. “Coaches did a great job of scouting the film that we know guy’s tendencies, where they like to go, plays they like to run for Malcolm … It’s always good when a player takes more shots than they have points.”
While Wisconsin has had only two conference games where it shot over 43 percent in each half, the Badgers led wire-to-wire thanks to opening the game on a 16-2 run. But while UW has used its size to out-scored teams by 12.4 points in the paint per game, Wisconsin saw Happ, Koenig, Hayes and Showalter all hit jumpers and the shots kept falling early.
After making only five field goals in the first half Saturday, extending its streak of three straight games shooting less than 40 percent in the first half, Wisconsin made 12 of its first 23 shots and shot 42.4 percent in the opening half.
Even when UW cooled, going 4 of 14 to start the second half to allow Illinois to cut the lead to 42-26 with 10:55 remaining, Showalter hit a 3-pointer to spark a 9-1 run that rebuilt a lead that stayed in double digits for the final 8:52.
“Showy – senior leader – made a big shot for us,” Hayes said. “When you hit a shot like that, especially a three, it kind of deflates them. They felt like they were going on a run, felt like they were going to come back, come down, hit a three and from there it was just make sure we get stops. I felt like we did a solid job defensively.”