MADISON – Senior Nigel Hayes acknowledged that looking at Wisconsin’s total field goal attempts and field goal makes paints an ugly picture, a growing trend of shots not falling with any large measure of consistency for anyone on the roster.
There was one exception to the rule and he was sitting a couple feet to Hayes’ left in the postgame interviews following another Big Ten conference triumph.
“Mr. Reliable here, Ethan, went 8-for-10,” Hayes said.
The only major conference player to lead his team in points, rebounds, blocks, assists and steals in conference play, Happ had seven rebounds, contributed team highs in steals (three) and blocks (three) and dished out two assists to help Wisconsin (20-3, 9-1 Big Ten) maintain a one-game lead over Maryland for first place in the Big Ten as teams begin the second half of the conference schedule.
“When it gets down later in the game, you’re going to dig deep,” Happ said.
More importantly Wisconsin made sure upset Saturday didn’t bleed into the weekend. Six of the nine AP top 10 teams that played lost on Saturday, including three at home to unranked conference teams. Hitting closer to home, all four Big Ten road teams won to further drive home the balance of the league.
So while things were far from pretty offensively, the Badgers certainly won’t apologize for holding the conference’s top scoring offense 23 points below their average and just 7-for-20 from the 3-point line.
“The smaller that (ranking) number is next to your name, the harder the games get,” Hayes said, registering his third double-double of the season with 15 points (4-for-14 shooting) and 10 rebounds. “It’s always tough, but I think that’s something you enjoy.”
And in a game where UW shot 39.6 percent, seeing Indiana (15-9, 5-6) make two more field goals and three more 3-pointers than the hosts, Wisconsin never trailed in part by going 23-for-31 from the line, including 7-for-8 in the final 51 seconds.
“There’s other ways (that) when it doesn’t go your way, we can still find a way,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said, adding it wasn’t the team’s “most intelligent display of basketball” based on giving up defensive lapses and turning the ball over 13 times.
“Getting to the free throw line was a counter to us not shooting the three well (4-for-17). That’s what good, experienced teams will find. Find some other way to scratch and claw to get it done.”
Junior Josh Newkirk scored 22 points to lead Indiana, which went just 11-for-12 from the free throw line to extend a losing streak to Madison that dates back to 1998.
While the rest of the starting lineup combined for 9-for-36 from the floor, Wisconsin again leaned on its All-American candidate to provide the lift. Scoring 10 points in each half, Happ was the center of attention for Wisconsin in the opening half.
Of UW’s first 24 points, 21 came inside or from the free throw line, including Happ scoring six of the team’s first eight points. He provided a spark to a quiet crowd in the second half when he registered a dunk off a set inbounds play and a put back off an offensive rebound, the latter making it 35-27 with 14:40 remaining. He also delivered a steal and one-handed flush with 3:33 to go.
In what has been the case, Happ delivered plays outside of putting the ball in the basket. He delivered his third block on Robert Johnson (5-for-15) with 2:35 remaining, and managed to call a 30 second timeout before falling out of bounds.
And when he was doubled in the post, Happ fed to an open Zak Showalter, whose 3-pointer with 1:37 remaining gave the Badgers a 58-50 lead.
“He’s improved (from last year), as they all do here at Wisconsin,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said of Happ. “He’s a very good player.”
Although UW had some gaffes defensively, especially in the opening half, Wisconsin made enough plays to gloss over the fact Indiana shot 54.5 percent in the second half.
Showalter drew a charge, Vitto Brown became more active around the rim and Wisconsin’s frontcourt uses its length to continuously fluster Thomas Bryant. In the second half, Bryant – coming off a 31-point effort in Indiana’s triple-overtime victory – committed four turnovers (two travels) against pressure given by Happ, Brown and Khalil Iverson. After scoring nine points in the first half, Bryant had only two points on two shots the rest of the game.
Combine that with a spurt offensively, scoring points on five straight possessions to give the Badgers a 45-37 lead with 8:05 remaining, it was enough to get to the finish line.
“To hold them to only 60 points I think is a really good deal for us,” Hayes said. “That’s the only reason why we won.”