WASHINGTON – Revenge was the apparently the furthest thing on second-seeded Wisconsin’s mind when they saw Northwestern was its draw in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. The only thing the Badgers wanted – or claimed to desire – was delivering another solid performance that could serve as a postseason building block.
By getting one, the Badgers got the other in dominant fashion.
Finding a flow offensively that was sparked by a third straight proficient defensive performance, second-seeded Wisconsin registered a 76-48 victory that was emphatic in its delivery.
Nigel Hayes led the Badgers with 18 points and 10 rebounds, Ethan Happ scored 16, including 8 of 11 from the free throw line and Zak Showalter added 10 points to lead Wisconsin (25-8) into the Big Ten tournament championship game for a seventh time.
There the Badgers will play Michigan, an 84-77 winner over Minnesota in the day’s first semifinal, in Sunday’s 2 p.m. CT title game.
The Badgers' late season slide, losing five of six to fall out of the Big Ten race, started with a 66-59 home loss to Northwestern and included a road loss in Ann Arbor. First things first, Wisconsin’s 28-point victory was the largest margin of victory in a semifinals in conference tournament history, including the largest ever for the Badgers in any round.
“When you look at our offense, our defense, and playing well both halves, this was one of our best, if not the best game of the season,” senior forward Vitto Brown (8 points, 8 rebounds) said. “We put it all together.”
The Badgers opened the game with a 7-0 run, striking a balance between attacking the paint, hitting from the perimeter and bottling up Northwestern. The Wildcats missed their first seven shots and were trailing 15-3 by the 12:59 mark, thanks to eight points from Bronson Koenig and seven from Hayes.
Northwestern's 9-1 run cut the Badgers lead to four at 16-12. That was as close as they would get. Zak Showalter hit back to back three pointers, the first field goals from someone besides Koenig and Hayes, to extend the lead to nine and Happ scored 10 points to close out the first half, including hitting 6 of 9 free throws and a couple of layups.
By the time the Badgers hit the locker room, they had a 17-point lead, their largest at the break since Jan.12.
“The free throws made the difference between a 17-point lead at the half and maybe a 10-point lead if we shot free throws like we had previously,” Showalter said. “That was huge.”
“We had a 15 point lead; I said, 'we've done the big things to get the lead, make threes, and-ones, etcetera,” Hayes added. “To extend the lead, we have to continue to do the little things right now. I think we did a fairly good job of that.”
In the season's earlier match-up, Northwestern stymied Happ and the Badgers’ offense with aggressive double teams, but quick passing and timely outside shooting prevented a recurrence of scoring woes.
The Badgers finished the game with 13 assists while shooting 41.4 percent from 3-point range, marking the third straight game – and first time this season – hitting at least 10 3-pointers in three straight games. Additionally seven different Badgers hit a three pointer, also a season first.
But while the offense was given a jolt, the Badgers insisted they did not change things up on defense.
“Our game plan will very rarely change,” Koenig said (eight points). “We were discombobulated a few weeks ago on defense, but now we care about each more, helping and recovering. Playing as one unit, not five individuals.”
The Badgers held Northwestern to a single assist through the first 32 minutes, and five for the game, six fewer than the first meeting this season.
“We tried to focus on chasing a lot harder than we did last time,” junior guard Jordan Hill said (five points). “We did a much better job of rebounding and preventing second-chance points.”
Wisconsin out rebounded Northwestern 37-27 and limiting the Wildcats to only seven second-chance points and two fast-break points.
“We played with a little more urgency, a little more grit,” Happ said. “We didn't come ready to play in the first game, and Northwestern got to the 50-50 balls in that game. Today we got to the 50-50 balls.”
The Badgers completely put the game away with a 13-2 run, increasing the lead from 15 to 26 with less than 10 minutes remaining. After a couple of baskets by the Wildcats, the Badgers reeled off another 8-0 run, highlighted by 3-pointers from Hill and Brevin Pritzl to reach their biggest lead of the game at 33 points.
In February Northwestern scored 16 points off of 12 turnovers but were limited to four points off of nine turnovers in losing to the Badgers for the first time since February.
“Northwestern has handled us the last couple of years,” Showalter said, “I don't know if it their system or what, but we've struggled against them our last couple of games.”
After falling short of its preseason goal to win the Big Ten title, seeing a 1.5 game lead start to slip away with the loss to Northwestern, Wisconsin can pick up the pieces with its fourth tournament win in school history. Doing against a team that contributed to their downfall would just be an added bonus.
“We talking about the tournament, this tournament, just trying to take three steps to this,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said. “We talked about step one. We couldn’t get to today until we took care of yesterday. Same thing today. Sunday wasn’t going to happen unless we took care of today.
“All we’re worried about is the game in front of us. That’s how we’ve approached all year”