MADISON – Before inbounding the ball to start trying to pick up the pieces from another poor first half, the Kohl Center sound system blared Apollo 440’s “Can’t Stop the Rock.” It was a fitting sound selection for a team that continues to misfire defensively in critical situations.
Up nine with 3:46 to play, No.22 Wisconsin allowed Iowa to close the game on a 12-1 run and saw the dagger 3-pointer delivered by freshman Jordan Bohannon with 9.7 seconds left in a 59-57 loss that left the Badgers stunned.
The loss officially eliminates Wisconsin (22-8, 11-6 Big Ten) from having a chance to earn a share of the regular season conference title, a race it led by 1.5 games just 19 days ago. This one might have been the biggest gut punch of them all.
Wisconsin got a game-high 19 points from Bronson Koenig but his jumper to send the game to overtime ended up short and sent the Badgers to their fifth loss in the last six games.
Double-figure contributes from Zak Showalter (11), Ethan Happ (11) and Nigel Hayes (10) also meant little, not when the Badgers couldn’t take advantage against a defense ranked last in the conference in scoring defense (77.7) and only managed to score 10 points off 19 turnovers.
“We’re trying to crawl out of it,” Hayes said. “It’s optimistically frustrating to see the losses we’ve had, the stretch we’ve been on, the things we’ve done to shoot ourselves in the foot.”
After giving up back-to-back 80 points in regular season conference games for the first time in 14 years, Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard praised the defensive effort of limiting Iowa (17-13, 9-8) 18.3 points below its average.
Problem is the Badgers are walking such a fine line that every little mistake is magnified, even during the last five minutes of games when they have been seemingly unbeatable, entering the night 19-0 on the season (34-0 under Gard) when leading or tied with five minutes remaining.
The Badgers led by six at that point and boosted it to nine off a Showalter 3-pointer with 4:15 remaining. Things started to unravel shortly after that.
On UW’s final seven possessions, the Badgers managed one point and had three consecutive turnovers, struggling at times to even successfully inbound the ball with Iowa mixing man, press and zone defenses.
“We’ve got to put together a full game,” Hayes said. “We come out, play well in spurts … We’ll give you a good five minutes and then forget what we’re doing for the next five.”
The Badgers also saw free throws cost them for the second time in five days. After missing 12 in a 10-point loss at Michigan State, UW went 5-for-14 from the line. Happ went 1-for-7, including two misses with 30.5 seconds left and the Badgers clinging to a one-point lead.
“He feels awful about it,” Gard said. “I feel bad for him. It is who he is. He understands it. He works at it. He works with every one of the coaches. He’s worked with me. He’s worked on his own, but it’s something that he hasn’t been able to make the progress he needs to make with it. He’s finding out the result when you don’t make the progress he needs to make.”
Nicholas Baer scored 14 points to help Iowa end a six game losing streak against the Badgers and get some redemption. Last year Iowa was ranked eighth and couldn't halt the Badgers’ 8-1 run in an 8-point loss. This year they closed on a 7-0 run over the final 1:46.
“The way we stayed together (down the stretch) was critical,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
Even with Wisconsin limiting Peter Jok, who was averaging 20.6 points per game but managed only eight points on 2-for-10 shooting, the Hawkeyes attacked the interior of Wisconsin’s defense with repeated success. After trailing by nine, Iowa scored nine points in its next six possessions all resulting in paint touches. That opened up things for Iowa to sink its ninth - and final - 3-pointer.
After Happ’s missed free throws, Jok was too strong on a jumper, Hayes mistimed his jump to give Cordell Pemsl the rebound and an open kick to Bohannon. Shooting 39.5 percent from 3-point range on the season and 0-for-4 in the second half, Bohannon buried the open look to give Iowa its first lead in over 11 minutes.
Koenig had a chance to salvage things but his jumper a step inside the arc with three seconds left went off the front rim.
“Whether it be turnovers at inopportune times or a simple defensive rebound in the last possession make the big difference,” Gard said. “All those little things add up.”
The last stretch will be magnified, but Wisconsin didn’t help itself in the opening 20 minutes. Scoreless for 10 straight possessions, covering 6:42 at the tail end of the half, the Badgers’ failures to get to the free throw line (1-for-3), convert at the rim and get any production from their bench (zero points in 23 minutes) dug themselves a familiar hole.
That caused the fine line to get even tighter, a tightrope the Badgers fell off on the home stretch.
“We came out strong, but they made some shots and got back in the game,” Showalter said. “We’ve just got to finish halves. That’s our issue right now … For some reason we’re just not finishing, and that’s what this team was good at early in the season is those clutch minutes.”