BLOOMINGTON, Ind.—Whether or not Wisconsin wins a share of the Big Ten title this year, they sure did their part this week to make the race interesting.
Behind a brilliant performance from junior guard Devin Harris and a physical, badgering defense, Wisconsin jumped all over Indiana (7-9 Big Ten, 13-14 overall) Saturday to win its regular-season finale, 70-52 at Assembly Hall. It was the Badgers' second conference road win of the week, matching as many as they had during their first six Big Ten road games.
"We're playing extremely well right now, we're peaking as a team, and it's showing," Harris said. He finished the game with 26 points on 8 of 13 shooting from the field and 5 of 8 from 3-point range.
With a little help from Ohio State, Wisconsin could still win a third consecutive Big Ten championship. The Badgers finished their regular season 12-4 in conference play (21-6 overall), a half-game behind Illinois. An Illini loss to the Buckeyes Sunday would create a three-way tie with Wisconsin and Michigan State. Such a scenario would result in the Badgers being awarded the No. 1 seed in next week's Big Ten Tournament. UW can be seeded no lower than second.
Saturday, Harris was a one-man wrecking crew in the first half, notching 16 points during the first 13 minutes of the game. After the contest was tied at 12 with 11:16 remaining, the Badgers orchestrated a 21-6 run sparked by Harris' sizzling shooting. Playing aggressively against the Indiana guards and forcing sloppy passes, the Badgers were able to hold the Hoosiers to zero field goals over the final three minutes, 46 seconds of the first half and carried a 33-18 lead into halftime.
In the first half, Harris connected on 4 of 6 from beyond the arc and 6 of 9 from the field.
Winning by as many as 18 points in the first ten minutes of the second half, the Badgers tailored the tempo to their style of half-court game, benefiting from strong, accurate passes and very few turnovers.
However, with less than 11 minutes remaining, Indiana began to make a run, cutting the UW lead to nine points on three different occasions. Sparked by offensive rebounds and several consecutive 3-pointers, the Hoosiers seemingly had a bit of momentum going, until the Badgers stepped it up a notch.
"They hit some tough shots … but our guys, we try to get them not to get too low on runs that the other team makes, getting into hostile environments, because if you do that you just magnify the problem," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said.
"So, the main thing is, what are you going to do down on your offensive end to get it back, and we ran a special for Devin, that he called," Ryan added. "He hits the three to get one back and then we get a foul on the inside to get two of the points back. So, in that stretch … we countered with some points of our own and didn't let it get to five, or six or seven."
Rather than let the lead diminish, the Badgers added to it at the most opportune time and finished the game strong, leading by as many as 21 points in the final minute.
The Badgers forced 11 turnovers and held Indiana to just 34.5 percent shooting Saturday. Wisconsin successfully hounded sophomore guards Bracey Wright and Marshall Strickland, who combined hit 6 of 26 shots for 14 points, thanks in large part to UW's defense only allowing them to shoot perimeter jumpers.
The Badgers also played a very clean defensive game, permitting the Hoosiers to take only nine trips to the free-throw line. Indiana made six, while Wisconsin hit 16 of 23 from the charity stripe.
After opening the game making just 1 of 7 shots, the Badgers clicked on all cylinders offensively, handing the Hoosiers their worst senior day defeat ever.
After defeating Michigan State in thrilling fashion last Tuesday in East Lansing and then dominating Indiana Saturday, the Badgers appear to be hitting their stride in prime time for the conference tourney next weekend.
"Here we have two games this week that we've done some good things on the road, what's it say about us?" Ryan said after the game. "It says our guys are pretty tough, they're gritty and they handle the aggression and the atmosphere and everything else and found a way to get it done."
Whether or not Wisconsin will earn a share of this season's Big Ten title is yet to be determined, however, after the strong showing in Bloomington Saturday, the Badger players are proud of their second consecutive 12-win conference season.
"We're proud of what we've accomplished and hungry to keep going," junior guard Clayton Hanson said.