Playing a second game in less than 24 hours, it’s not uncommon to see a slip in production on the offensive end. Wisconsin suffered anything but a slip.
The Badgers averaged 1.23 points per possession and got stronger as the game wore on, shooting 53.8 percent from the floor and 3-point range in the second half to build a lead as big as 33 points.
All five Wisconsin starters had at least eight points and the group jumped on Northwestern early. Nigel Hayes registered a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds, attacking early by scoring 12 of his points in the first half.
Scoring 10 in the first half, Ethan Happ added 16 points and eight rebounds, but the encouraging sign was the sophomore getting half of his points from the free throw line. Happ tied a season-high with eight made free throws on 11 attempts, as UW went 10-for-15 from the line.
“Coming into this tournament I felt more confident,” Happ said about his free throws. “Last game I only got one crack at a free throw. I put in a lot of time. Coach Gard has helped me with my free throw, as well. We put in a lot of time, worked on a lot of things.”
Wisconsin’s offense in the first half was run through the perimeter. Fourteen of UW's first 22 attempts were from beyond the arc, going 5 of 14 on 3-pointers and 4-for-8 inside. Hayes’ first two shots were far from things of beauty but he hit his next four shots from various points on the floor, not to mention delivering a one-hand flip of a Jordan Hill air ball to Koenig, who was wide open on the elbow for a 3-pointer to put the Badgers up 15-3 seven minutes into the game.
Koenig and Showalter hit a pair of 3-pointers in the first half, with Showalter’s shots coming from virtually the same spot on the elbow. In all seven different players hit 3-pointers, a season-high, as UW went 12-for-29 (41.4 percent) beyond the arc.
When Northwestern started pinching, Wisconsin starting attacking the paint. Starting with Showalter’s put-back off a Hayes missed 3-pointer, seven of the Badgers’ final eight possessions included a bucket in the paint, an offensive rebound or free throws.
“End of the first half we started to go inside a little more and they were having trouble with that,” Koenig said. “We just trying to exploit that as much as possible … When we have that balance of inside-outside, we can be very, very dangerous.”
The second half was more of the same, as the Badgers went 7-for-13 from 2-point range and 7-for-13 from 3-point range to flex their muscles. After letting Northwestern hang around for the first five minutes of the second half, the Badgers went on a 13-2 that was comprised of three 3-pointers and buckets in the paint to push the lead to 26 with 9:38 to go.
“It’s huge for us to see what we can do, what we’re capable of, when we’re playing well,” Hayes said. “Obviously when the ball starts going down, that’s a product of us playing the game the right way. The basketball gods have a way of doing that for you. They can punish you when you don’t do well and they can also take care of you.”
Wisconsin delivered 12 offensive rebounds that turned into 15 second-chance points, as both Happ and Brown snagged four offensive rebounds. Brown were particularly active early, delivering five of his eight rebounds in the first half. In one sequence, Brown hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key and followed that by being aggressive defensively to force a tie-up on Barret Benson for a jump ball, the possession arrow going to Wisconsin.
Trice delivered a team-high three assists but also committed three turnovers. One of his best, however, was when he fired a laser to Alex Illikainen, who cut between the defense down the lane for an open lay-up to make the score 48-31 early in the second half. It’s the kind of play UW is hopeful to see next season from both players, as Illikainen played at least seven minutes in consecutive games for the first time since early January.
After Northwestern scored 16 points off 12 turnovers in Madison, the Wildcats managed only four points off nine turnovers Saturday.
Less than a month ago Northwestern hurt Wisconsin off the dribble and its ability to create high percentage shots in the lane and in its mid-range game. Not so much this time around.
Wisconsin wasn’t lighting the world on fire in the first half, but the Badgers built a 17-point lead because their defense was suffocating, especially being active helpers in the low post.
Northwestern started 0-for-7 from the field, a result of communicating the switches, getting hands in defenders’ faces and locking down the paint. Koenig was terrific in the paint early on with his ability to guard off switches and contest shots. Brown didn’t score a point in the first half but snagged five rebounds and got his long reach on several others to start transition opportunities. He finished with eight boards, including a number of long rebounds he helped chase down to get Wisconsin moving into its offense.
“The effort was huge, and that’s really what it comes down to,” Brown said. “Sometime you can have a man boxed out but if he wants to still go get the ball he can still go get it. We knew that … Those little hustle plays and winning those 50-50 balls was huge for us.”
Northwestern finished the first half just 7-for-27, making only one field goal on 11 attempts the final 7:44 and .677 points per possession. Showalter beat himself up for his defense on Bryant McIntosh the first time around but can walk away feeling good holding the junior to 2-for-8 in the first half and only 2-for-4 in the second half.
“Last game I was not happy, but I watched the film and saw some of the things that he was trying to do and I could have done better,” Showalter said. “My teammates really did a great job being there when he came around a ball screen and had advantage on me, just being there, contesting him and not letting him get any easy looks.”
Wisconsin also was excellent in cutting off passing lanes, limiting Northwestern to only one assist through the first 32 minutes and five for the game.
Missing the regular season meeting while recovering from mononucleosis, Scottie Lindsey scored 16 on 5-for-10 shooting, but he was the only Wildcats player in double figures and the only one to shoot over 43 percent from the field. The Wildcats finished 18-for-52 (34.6 percent) from the field and 3-for-14 from 3-point range (21.4 percent).
Wisconsin turned 12 turnovers into 11 points, held the Wildcats to only two second-chance points and limited Northwestern to seven second-chance points (two in the second half) off eight offensive rebounds.
“It’s the right time of the year to be playing like that,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said. “We’ll continue to try to get better. We never lost faith in what we were doing, lost hope. It’s just a matter of, ‘let’s do what we do better.’ There weren’t any radical changes, anything outside the box. It was just let’s get back to doing what we do really well.”
For the second straight tournament game, this was a terrific performance by Wisconsin. The Badgers jumped out to a sizable lead at halftime, grew it exponentially throughout the second half and were able to go into their bench down the stretch to save the starter’s legs.
“Hopefully that will big for us tomorrow,” Showalter said.
Eight different reserves played for Wisconsin (Khalil Iverson went home Friday after a death in his family) and many produced. In addition to Trice, Brevin Pritzl hit a 3-pointer (his lone attempt from the field), Hill was active with five points, a rebound and an assist and Illikainen and Andy Van Vliet notched rebounds.
“Guys are continuing to grow,” Gard said. “Every opportunity they have, they need to take advantage of it, whether it’s in live action in a game, what they get in practice, in the scout team, or over with me on the other side of the floor. Just take advantage of your opportunities, continue to grow.”
Hayes says Wisconsin is 97 percent there, only saying some lulls in the middle that led to some sloppy play and turnovers were the only things that kept the Badgers from being perfect.
Game MVP: Nigel Hayes. Hayes airballed his first two shots, a potentially ominous sign for what was to come. By halftime the senior was 5-for-8 from the floor, including a 3-pointer, six rebounds, two assists and no turnovers. He was just as good after halftime, finishing with a line of 18 points (7-for-11), 2-for-2 from 3-point range, a team-high 10 rebounds, two assists, one steal and no turnovers.