EAST LANSING, Mich. – One of the smaller goals Wisconsin’s senior class had hoped to scratch off the list before departing was winning at the Breslin Center, a place no Badgers team has won at in 13 years. Right now, the Badgers will settle for winning any game anywhere.
With a chance to move into a first-place tie in the Big Ten back on the table, No.16 Wisconsin fell flat again on the road by not staying consistent on offense and not sticking to its principles on defense in a humbling 84-74 loss to Michigan State Sunday.
“It’s not the end of the world,” senior guard Bronson Koenig said after scoring 17 points. “We’ve been through this before.”
Maybe so, but certainly not with this much at stake so late in the Big Ten race.
It was a second opportunity wasted for Wisconsin (22-7, 11-5 Big Ten), which dropped its fourth game in the last five outings and remain a game behind Purdue (23-6, 12-4) entering the final week of the regular season.
Wisconsin hosts eighth-place Iowa Wednesday and third-place Minnesota Sunday. The Boilers hosts 10th-place Indiana Tuesday before traveling to sixth-place Northwestern Sunday
“I’ve always felt we needed to get better,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said. “I’ve never been completely comfortable or satisfied … We have to continue to get better. We don’t talk too much about the race or anything, or coming down to the last week to the season.”
Freshman forward Nick Ward scored 22 points in only 19 minutes, fellow freshman Miles Bridges scored 12 of his 17 in the second half and sophomore Matt McQuaid added 11 of 15 points after halftime for the Spartans (18-11, 10-6 Big Ten), which shot 46.7 percent to register their 10th straight home win over the Badgers.
“We put ourselves in a position where I can look in the mirror and say we deserve some things,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
Going through a month seemingly unable to string together offensive success, Wisconsin has strung together consecutive games of shooting over 43 percent for the first time in over a month, a small victory even through the Badgers have shot less than 44 percent for the ninth straight games, went 5-for-28 from 3-point range and went 17-for-36 in the paint.
The problem now is the defense, long known as a strength for the program that is beginning to leak like a sieve, giving up at least 80 points in back-to-back Big Ten regular season games for the first time since March 1993.
Michigan State shot over 45 percent in each half, scored the most points against Wisconsin since March 1995 and relied heavily on its two fabulous freshmen to set the tone.
Ward scored 13 points and had seven rebounds in only nine minutes in the first half while Bridges – perhaps a one-and-done candidate – added seven rebounds, four assists and one turnover.
Wisconsin allowed the Spartans to shoot 41 percent on three, a growing trend considering the Badgers are allowing teams to shoot 45.1 percent from three over the last five games.
“We just can’t get a stop,” Koenig said.
Ward and Bridges combined to go 11-for-13 from the free throw line, while McQuaid and Cassius Winston (10 points, eight assists) each made their four free throw attempts. Michigan State went 21-for-23 (91.3 percent).
Wisconsin wasn’t as fortunate. The Badgers went 13-for-25 from the line (52 percent), the ninth game this season the Badgers shot 60 percent or less than the line, and missed the front end of three bonus situations. Two of those misses came from Hayes, who finished 4-for-12 from the line.
Hayes also went 9-for-22 from the field to go along with 11 rebounds.
“That’s been going on all year,” Gard said of the free throw shooting. “We’ve won in spite of not converting.”
Koenig and Zak Showalter (15) also reached double figures, but it wasn’t enough to give the Badgers their first win at Michigan State since 2004 because they dug another deep first-half hole it never could fully get out of.
Leading by six early, their biggest lead at the Breslin Center in more than five years, the Badgers couldn’t slow Ward attacking the paint and marking the open shooters. The Spartans went on a 25-9 run and UW stayed in catch-up mode.
When Wisconsin got Ward in foul trouble, the Badgers closed the deficit to one at halftime with a 9-0 run over the final 2:44. When the Badgers started attacking Michigan State’s freshman in the low post and saw Hayes generate results. Wisconsin’s senior scored 13 points in the second half and hit a layup with 12:26 remaining to cut the deficit to 52-50.
But then Wisconsin went away from the paint, missing long-range shots on back-to-back possessions, and Michigan State made them pay for it. The Spartans hit a 3-pointer in transition and poured it on during a 15-3 run.
“That was a pivotal point because we made that run in,” Gard said, admitting he was disappointed in the decisions. “We had two opportunities in consecutive possessions to be able to crawl closer.”
Wisconsin made a late push, cutting the lead to 72-66 with 4:05 remaining, but Hayes missed a pair of free throws at 2:31 and then fouled Bridges on the next possession. Bridges hit two free throws to boost the lead to eight and a defensive lapse led to Ward delivering a 3-point play on the next possession that was the dagger.
“I thought we competed a lot better than Thursday night,” Gard said, “but the numbers tell the story.”