A sound performance on both ends of the court prolonged No.24 Wisconsin’s postseason stay, as five players reached double figures to lead the Badgers to a 70-60 victory over the Hoosiers at the Verizon Center.
Bronson Koenig had 16 points and five assists, while Ethan Happ contributed a double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds to get Wisconsin (24-8) in the Big Ten tournament semifinals with a date against sixth-seed Northwestern Saturday afternoon.
Freshman guard D'Mitrik Trice chipped in 13 points and Zak Showalter added 12 on a night where Wisconsin clicked on both ends of the floor, something that had been missing during a late-season slide that saw them lose five of six. It was the Wildcats that started that slide with a 66-59 victory in Madison.
“I think for a while there, our offense kind of sputtered,” Happ said. “Our defense was keeping us together. Once we got the offense going, our defense was kind of lacking. Now we're focusing on both. We've been doing a good job of maintaining both, not letting one lapse.”
James Blackmon scored 17 points and had eight rebounds to lead Indiana (18-15), which put three other players in double figures but got little help from sophomore center Thomas Bryant. Averaging 12.9 points per game, Bryant finished with two points with and no field goals for the first time in his college career, having no answer for Happ and Company in blanketed coverage.
Indiana had entered Friday scoring at least 90 points in its last two games, but the Badgers’ defense locked down the Hoosiers to only 41.1 percent shooting and less than one point per possession.
“(We) really did a terrific job on both ends of the floor defensively,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “Other than a couple breakdowns here or there, to be able to try to keep Indiana under control with what they can do offensively to teams … (took) a complete team effort.”
Wisconsin had a 59-47 lead with 6:28 to go after a Happ layup, but consecutive 3-pointers by Indiana on either side of another Happ layup cut the lead to eight. A Koenig three increased the lead to 64-53, but the Hoosiers reacted with a 7-0 run of their own to cut the lead to four.
Unlike last Thursday, when failures down the stretch cost the Badgers a home win against Iowa, Wisconsin ended the game on a 6-0 run that included hitting four straight free throws down the stretch.
“I would say we were just trying to keep our poise,” Koenig said, “not give them anything else easy, not turn the ball over, and just get good shots every time down the floor.”
The Hoosiers scored 20 points on their first 13 possessions, including hitting four of six 3-pointers. Two of Indiana's early three pointers came off offensive rebounds, accounting for six of the Hoosier's 10 early second chance points. Another three pointer came in transition following a steal by Robert Johnson. When Gard burned a timeout to emphasize getting body on bodies, things started to change.
After that point, Indiana scored seven points on its final 17 possessions of the half.
“Once we were able to defend in half court and keep them off the glass, we were able to play defense the way we wanted to play it,” senior Vitto Brown said.
Trailing 22-19 in the first half, Wisconsin pulled ahead for good with a 12-2 run that was a combination mid-range jumpers, low-post presence and perimeter marksmanship. The Badgers shot 5-for-9 on threes in the first half and 10-for-22 for the game, balancing out their 17-for-35 on two-point shots.
Wisconsin continued to push the lead in the second half, stretching the lead to 14 points by outscoring Indiana 14-6 over the first 6:08. The Badgers reached their biggest lead at 57-42 off of a Trice 3-pointer with 8:14 left to play.
UW did most of its damage in a three-guard lineup, with Trice playing 31 minutes to help the Badgers match Indiana’s quicker guards. The result worked, limiting Indiana to only three fast-break points.
“I probably played three guards more here in the last couple weeks,” Gard said. “Just as he's (Trice) matured, I've watched him in that position. It's helped to take maybe some of the pressure off the guys that have to do the ball-handling responsibilities.”
The Badgers ended up with 15 assists on 27 made field goals, eight combined from Koenig and Trice, and had several excellent passing sequences.
“I'm extremely proud of him,” Koenig said of Trice. “I just got a question asked in the locker room about, have I said anything to him about March. I pretty much just said, I don't even really need to say anything about March because of his background, where he comes from.
“I just need to give him all the confidence out on the court. I thought he did a great job tonight controlling the pace, being a facilitator, knocking down open shots.”
In the month of March, especially when it comes to eliminations, the Badgers can’t have enough options.