MADISON – Nigel Hayes knows that the University of Wisconsin didn’t have to lose a game to know it had to start shooting better, equating it to being smart enough that a hot stove top shouldn’t be touched.
Now that the Badgers finally got burned, maybe that will be thing that will shock the system of a veteran team who simply has been unable to buy shots consistently for over the past month.
Save for a brief run to start the second half, No.7 Wisconsin was stuck in the same shooting rut, only this time couldn’t make enough defensive plays to save itself in a 66-59 loss to Northwestern Sunday.
“We keep doing those mistakes and they finally caught up to us,” Hayes said, who finished with a team-high 13 points. “That’s what we said amongst ourselves.”
Junior Bryant McIntosh scored 25 points on 23 shots to give Northwestern (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten) a signature win to its resume, ending the Badgers’ 19-game home winning streak and tightening up the conference race in the process.
A day after fans created an uproar that the N.C.A.A. tournament selection committee didn’t view the Badgers as one of the top 16 teams in the country, Wisconsin (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten) responded by shooting 38 percent (19-for-50) and – in a change from recent weeks - sloppy play that prevented things from balancing out.
Not only did the Badgers finish with as many turnovers as points in the paint (12), they allowed the Wildcats - playing without leading scorer Scottie Lindsey for the third straight game – to shoot 48.3 percent from the floor in the second half, drop seven 3-pointers and deliver a defensive effort the likes the Badgers hadn’t seen since early January.
As a result, UW’s first-place lead over Maryland and Purdue shrunk to one game with six to go.
“The reason we lost this game doesn’t really stem from their points in the paint,” Hayes said.
Had Hayes continued his answer, he could have listed a variety of areas that had a bigger impact on the end result.
Ethan Happ scored seven points on Wisconsin’s first eight possessions, but the Wildcats took a page out of Nebraska’s playbook and threw double teams at him whenever he entered the low post. The result was the sophomore missing the four shots he took over the final 34:15 of the game, managing only a pair of free throws.
Because of Northwestern being undermanned, head coach Chris Collins said he was planning on double teaming Happ, and even Hayes to a degree, and live with the other players on the floor attempting jump shots.
“You can’t guard either of those guys one-on-one,” Collins said. “I thought we did a pretty good job in communicating with our double teams and getting out to shooters.”
Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter combined for 21 points on only six missed shots, but Bronson Koenig continues to struggle. Finishing 1-for-8, Koenig has missed at least seven shots in four of last five games and is 14-for-55 (25.5 percent) over that stretch, including 7-for-31 from 3-point range. The shooting slump coincides with a leg injury suffered in late January.
“I think he’s OK mentally,” Gard said. “I think the injury is a factor.”
Wisconsin sprinted out of the gates on an 11-4 run, going 5-for-8 from the floor and holding the Wildcats to only 2-for-9. But like they have many times over the last month, the Badgers’ offense crashed down to earth. Only this time it took its defense and ball security with it.
For as quick as Northwestern dug itself a hole, the Wildcats delivered a 22-5 run over an 8:38 stretch, including a 16-0 run in six possessions that concluded with 3-pointers on three straight trips down the floor.
It didn’t help that the Badgers committed five turnovers in a 3:56 span, enabling the Wildcats to start sprinting ahead and lead 31-22 at the break.
“That’s probably more frustrating than the ball not going in,” Gard said.
There was a glimmer of hope to begin the second half, as Wisconsin ripped off a 10-0 by holding Northwestern scoreless on its first five possessions (including three airballs) and dropping a couple early perimeter shots, but a 14-5 counter run built the Cats’ lead to 47-38 with 9:31 left.
“We called a timeout; we regrouped,” Collins said.
The Badgers couldn’t cut the lead closer than four. After D’Mitrik Trice’s layup cut the lead to 51-47 with 5:36 remaining, the Badgers finished the game 2-for-11 that included a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Northwestern’s leader had no such problem. A year after scoring 28 in a home win over Wisconsin, McIntosh played all 40 minutes, had seven assists to two turnovers and scored six of his points in the final two minutes by having success constantly cutting into the lane.
“It’s a big win of us,” McIntosh said, “and I’m really proud of all of us.”
After skating by the last four games with wins against the three worst teams in the conference and another riddled with injuries, Wisconsin is in for a gauntlet the rest of the way. Of the Badgers’ final six conference games, four are against teams in the N.C.A.A. tournament conversation.
“To get everybody’s best shot, knowing that we’re marked, is good for us,” Gard said. “Continue to learn, grow and get better because nothing that happened this game is surprising in terms of areas we need to improve upon.”