Wisconsin’s offense was sloppy at the start, committing three turnovers in a four-possession span, all coming within the first nine possessions of the game. And while Michigan pushed the tempo on all them, the Badgers held them without a bucket on the first two and Bronson Koenig committed a smart foul to prevent Michigan’s Derrick Walton from a fast break after the UW senior’s pocket was picked. That was an encouraging sign, especially when the Badgers heated up.
Down 10 points after a Walton’s 3-point barrage, the Badgers closed the first half on a 13-3 run to make it a one-point deficit at halftime. Koenig’s ability to hit perimeter jumpers combined with Ethan Happ’s ability to finish inside gave hope that the Badgers could maintain their offensive flow and that Michigan would cool off.
The start to the second half was equaling as frustrating. The Badgers came up empty on their first six possessions, missing four shots and committing three turnovers. After a pair of free throws, it took UW another three possessions before making its first field goal. By that time eight minutes, four seconds had elapsed, the Badgers were down eight and in catch-up mode.
According to guard Zak Showalter, the Badgers felt coming out of halftime that they had turned a corner but Michigan hitting some tough shots was deflating.
“They just took us out of everything we wanted to do,” he said. “Credit to Michigan. They played a heck of a game.”
After shooting 53.8 percent in the first half (14-for-26), Wisconsin dipped down to 26.7 percent (8-for-30) and scored only .727 points per possession, missing too many shots around the rim and not hitting enough 3-pointers (2-for-8) to keep up. All the misses limited Wisconsin to only 28 points in the paint, tied for the fourth-fewest by a Big Ten team against them all season (Minnesota had 50 points inside the day before). UW’s 14 offensive rebounds also yielded only 11 points.
“If you’re not finishing in the paint, you’re relying on jump shots,” Happ said. “That’s not a recipe for a win.”
No UW player made more than two field goals in the second half after three made at least four in the first half. Koenig led the way with 15 points but was 0-for-7 in the second half, victimized by a handful of good-looking shots that didn’t fall. After those happened, he admitted to forcing some shots to try and get UW and himself in a flow. Happ and Nigel Hayes each had 14 points and 11 rebounds, but five of Happ’s team-high six offensive rebounds were off his own misses.
Showater’s five-game double-digit streak came to an end with eight points (3-for-8), while senior Vitto Brown chipped in with five points. Overall UW shot 39.3 percent from the field and a respectable 40 percent (6-for-15) from 3-point range – the fourth straight game UW hit at least 40 percent from 3-point range after doing it just once in its previous 11 games.
Wisconsin also went 6-for-8 from the free throw line in a game between two teams that seldom foul. Nobody on UW attempted more than three free throws.
The Badgers only committed six turnovers in the first half but were sloppy with nine in the second half, although four came in the final three minutes (nine possession) when UW was in desperation mode. The Wolverines cashed the 15 turnovers into 17 points.
When Wisconsin is playing hard-nosed defense on the perimeter and Michigan is making off-balanced 3-pointers to beat the shot clock, it’s really not your day. When Michigan seed a long 3-pointer bounce high off the rim and still find the bottom of the net, it’s time to wave the white flag.
“They made a lot of tough shots and capitalized on every mistake that we made,” Showalter said.
The Badgers’ defense wasn’t awful, but the numbers don’t look good against a Michigan team that had to feel like it was playing with house money. The Wolverines shot 59.1 percent in the first half, 53.8 percent in the second half and 56.3 percent for the game, averaging 1.16 points per possession. They were 17-for-25 on 2-point shots and 10-for-23 on 3-pointers, settling into a rhythm when Wisconsin couldn’t consistently run them off the arc.
“We’ve got to make them as uncomfortable as possible,” junior guard Jordan Hill said. “Our defense is built a certain way, and we have to play within our rules and play as close to that as we can every time we’re on the court. I think sometimes we broke something and they took good advantage of miscues.”
Michigan’s starting five scored 68 of the team’s 71 points in Sunday’s championship game, and Walton – after a slow start – stayed hot after his three consecutive 3-pointers in the first half.
Of Michigan’s first eight shots, six were from 3-point range, a good sign that the Badgers were crowding the paint and preventing driving lanes. Only problem was Michigan made three of the 3-pointers, most coming with at least a hand in the face. When Wisconsin’s defense sagged, the Wolverines kept shooting. Walton hit 3-pointers on three straight possessions and the Wolverines started 6-for-10 from the perimeter to build a 30-20 lead with 5:22 remaining. Coming into the game, UW’s largest postseason deficit was four.
Michigan went into a lull midway through the second half, going 0-for-5 and 1-for-7, but the Badgers were unable to cut the lead closer than six.
Showalter had three steals but the rest of the roster only had one, as Michigan’s nine turnovers only produced nine points off the turnovers.
“It hurts to have so many ups and downs in the regular season, have two good games and then take a step backwards almost,” Happ said.
Some games teams just run into a hot-shooting unit that is on a mission. It appeared evident that the Wolverines were playing with house money and played more carefree than Wisconsin, which was trying to salvage a championship from the disappointing end to the regular season. The Badgers might have been able to do it had they converted more at the rim, drew more contact, rotated better on shooters and got any kind of production from its bench.
The reserves were a bright spot through the first two games here. While D'Mitrik Trice did score 22 of the bench’s 29 points, the Badgers were getting quality minutes, rebounds, low-post presence and other intangibles from a group that will be counted on to have a much bigger role next season. There was none of that Sunday.
The bench produced no points and Hill had the only rebounds (two) and assist (one). Trice was minus-16 during his 23 minutes on the court, second-worse behind Hayes’ minus-20. Hill’s hustle plays helped him finish plus-4 in his 18 minutes, the only Badgers to finish in the positive.
“It’s really tough to stop somebody when they’re feeling good about themselves and you get stops on defense when you’re feeling good about yourself,” Hill said. “We string together one or two stops and we come down and turn the ball over or take a bad shot. Especially when you’re down, that’s deflating. That’s something we definitely have to go over the film and correct. We’ve got to play confidently on offensively, as well as defensively.”
GAME MVP: Nigel Hayes. Somebody has to get the honor and, despite his team-worse minus-20 rating, Hayes did do some good things in registering his second straight double-double (he was a rebound away against Indiana from having a double-double in all three games). Hayes was decent defensively with team-highs in defensive rebounds (seven) and blocks (two) and not terrible offensively, although a player of his caliber should be getting to the line more than twice in a game, even against a team that doesn’t foul often.