LINCOLN, Neb. – Just when it appears Wisconsin has run out of ways to overcome a poor shooting performance, the Badgers pull another out of the fire to remain on top of the Big Ten.
That’s what the mentally strong group in the Badgers’ locker room is proving as it remains unscathed going through its shooting fog that is low on style points.
On a night where the shots still don’t fall, senior Nigel Hayes was able to free himself from the shooting fog with a game-high 20 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer in overtime, to push No.7 Wisconsin’s winning streak to eight with a 70-69 overtime victory over Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“Big players make big time plays,” Hayes said. “I never lose confidence in myself. I could have missed my last 30 3s and knew I was going to make that one.”
Senior Zak Showalter added 15 points on 4-for-6 on threes to help the Badgers (21-3, 10-1 Big Ten) win their eighth straight overtime game and maintain a 1.5 game lead over Purdue in the Big Ten standings with seven games to go.
In an overtime session that had six lead changes and two ties, Wisconsin needed everything from a four-point play from Showalter and a 3-point bank shot from Bronson Koenig (12 points, 4-for-13) to keep afloat on a night the team shot 23-for-63 (36.5 percent) and 8-for-22 (36.4 percent) from 3-point range.
Saying his team couldn’t shoot, couldn’t finish around the rim, committed too many turnovers and allowed too many rebounds, head coach Greg Gard called it another “gut check” performance.
“They answered the call when they needed to,” Gard said.
After going 12-for-39 in the previous four games, Hayes found his offense after sitting most of the first half with foul trouble. Working in the low block, the forward scored 15 points in the second half, but saved his biggest shot on a feed from Koenig in the extra session, splashing a 3-pointer – his first perimeter attempt of the game - with 18.4 seconds remaining.
It was easily the biggest 3-pointer of the year for Hayes, who entered the game 17-for-57 beyond the arc on the season and only 4-for-20 in conference play.
“He’s been very wise from the standpoint that he’s stayed for the most part true to who he is, what he is,” Gard said of Hayes “If he has to take a timely one, an important one, obviously he was able to do that and deliver. He’s 6-for-9 (from the field) and 7 of 11 from the free throw line, that’s the efficiency we need out of him. And if the threes come from that, or as a result of matchups that we can take advantage of like we did there at the end, that’s a bonus.”
UW did it with defense from there, looking to their All-American to make the plays. Being switched out on offense down the stretch because of his free throw shooting, Ethan Happ’s final bucket came with 9:40 remaining and finished with eight points against constant double teams and 14 rebounds.
However, thanks in part to Showalter cutting off a direct driving lane, Happ blocked Tai Webster’s drive to the rim following Hayes’ 3-pointer, secured the rebound and called timeout with 3.3 seconds left.
“He had been scoring a lot, so we knew that once he got in there he would try to put one up,” Happ said. “We had a lot of guys do great chest ups, and I just saw the ball, went for it and got a block. We’re lucky enough that the ref heard me call timeout.”
After Hayes missed a pair of free throws with 2.2 seconds left, Happ knocked the ball out of Michael Jacobson’s hand just before time expired for the 22nd turnover by the Huskers (10-14, 4-8).
A game in which Wisconsin led or didn’t trail for the first 34-plus minutes turned into a nail biter after the Badgers’ three minute, 18 second scoreless drought spurred a 9-0 Huskers run to lead 52-49 with 4:18 remaining.
That’s when Showalter helped bring UW back. Two made free throws cut the lead to one and two possessions later, with the game tied at 53, Showalter hit a 3-pointer with one second left on the shot clock to give the Badgers a 56-53 lead with 1:58 remaining.
UW appeared poise to escape with a victory with Hayes saved a sloppy possession by hitting a fade-away jumper 10.6 seconds left, but the Huskers got a reprieve when Jacobson hit a 3-pointer with 0.3 remaining. It was Nebraska’s first field goal since the 5:06 mark of the half. UW was expected Webster of Glynn Watson (15 points) to take the shot, but instead saw Jacobson hit his first attempted 3-pointer since Dec. 28.
“Credit to him, he stepped up big for his team,” Hayes said. “Fortunately for us we got it done in overtime.”
Nebraska took the lead four different times in the extra sessions and led by as many as three. The Huskers could have bumped it up to four by Ed Morrow – who grabbed 13 rebounds after missing the last seven games with a foot injury – missed two free throws. Nebraska was 15-for-24 from the line, mistakes compounded when Hayes hit his 3-pointer on the next possession.
Webster finished with 19 points and the Huskers ended with 20 offensive rebounds, but the Badgers held them to seven second-chance points and just 40.0 percent shooting
“You have to credit their interior defensive,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “You saw the quick hands of Ethan Happ. I thought that was a big difference, we turned it over way too much obviously. You’re a little jumpy and you’re going to make some mistakes but 22 turnovers is not ok when your goal is 12 or less.”
In a first half where both teams combined for 19 made field goals, 39 misses, 17 fouls and 18 turnovers, Wisconsin led 25-24 thanks to the defense forcing 11 turnovers and visitors limiting the hosts to only three second-chance points on 10 offensive rebounds.
Three of 23 in his last three games, senior Vitto Brown had seven points on 3-for-7 in the first half but was held scoreless in the second half as the shooting woes continue to persist.
No matter. Survive and advance.
“We know we’re getting everybody’s best shot,” Gard said. “We’re getting chased right now. We’ve got to get better. I don’t know if we can be a whole lot worse than tonight but we found a way.”