Getting down to business
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—It did not take long for second-seeded Wisconsin to relish the opportunity of being in the school's first ever Big Ten Tournament Championship game. Jumping out to a quick 6-0 lead in the opening minutes, the Badgers denied Illinois its first field goal until two minutes, 22 seconds into the first half.
Spurred by their defense, the Badgers scored four of the early six courtesy of junior guard Devin Harris, who converted two baskets in transition.
Early leads have been a staple for Illinois during its 12-game winnings streak to close out the regular season and the first two games of the conference tournament. On Sunday, however, the Badgers gave the Illini a little piece of their own medicine.
"The start was huge," junior guard Clayton Hanson said. "We got the ball in the post early, hit some outside shots too, so anytime we can get a good jump like that by doing the things we talk about, it makes it real hard for other teams to get going on us."
"It was good, we brought the energy right away and had a good momentum builder at the beginning and that was key," senior center Dave Mader said. "The fans got into right away and it was good for us and we kept it going throughout the whole game, it was a consistent thing. That's the key thing, to keep the momentum going and we did for the most part."
With the strong start, the Badgers also did a notable job taking the profuse Illinois fans out of the game early.
"The start really got our crowd into it and kind of calmed their crowd down because they had a lot of people there today," junior forward Zach Morley said. "Hitting shots early just gets us going and gets our confidence and energy going."
Building as much as a 13-point lead in the opening 20 minutes, the Badgers were able to carry their strong start into halftime, leading by 12 at the break.
Standing with Dave
A facet of the pregame huddle for the Badgers the last five or six games has been the "inspirational and motivational" yelling of Dave Mader to pump up the team.
As soon as Mader started the pregame ritual, the Badgers appear to have found their stride and are red-hot entering the NCAA tournament next weekend, having won seven consecutive games.
"It's just something as of late, just at the end of the Big Ten season," Mader said with a smile after the win over Illinois Sunday. "I'm just trying to get the guys riled up a little bit and I've taken it upon myself to yell and scream a little bit and I guess since we're on a roll, I'm going to have to keep it going. It's no big deal, just getting a little wild and crazy."
An arRAY of options
Playing their third game in three days, the Badgers had to test their bench during the title game versus Illinois. The reserves responded in kind, providing major contributions.
One Badger who wrapped up a solid weekend with another quality performance Sunday was sophomore forward Ray Nixon. In 16 minutes, Nixon contributed eight points and four rebounds (two of which were offensive), while also connecting on both his attempts from 3-point range.
"Ray was huge, he knocked down open threes, rebounded well, guarded well and that's the energy we need off the bench," senior guard Freddie Owens said. "When the starters get tired, it's great to know that we have guys off the bench that are going to play equally hard."
Nixon more Saturday (12 minutes) and Sunday then he had since garnering 17 minutes Feb. 4 against Minnesota.
On top of Nixon, UW was able to also get big minutes from Hanson, who snatched seven rebounds in his 27 minutes. Despite being in foul trouble, Morley also played a solid game, scoring six points in 15 minutes.
"Even in a tournament like this, three games in three days, [the bench] is magnified even more," Hanson said. "Ray stepped in and hit some big shots, Zach came in and was in foul trouble but still contributed. Mike and Devin, we know are going to score for us but we just have to find ways to contribute too, in any way we can."
"When guys are tired, the rotations have to come in and we just have to bring as much energy and intensity as we can to the court," Nixon said.
Getting into a comfort zone
With the Badgers maintaining a sizeable lead for much of the game, one of the toughest things the team had to battle during the second half was themselves. Expecting a run from Illinois down the stretch, Wisconsin recognized the importance of maintaining the tempo and momentum of the game while keeping its lead over the Illini.
"Overall, we did a pretty good job of controlling the tempo, but it's a game of runs and we knew they were going to get on a run sooner or later," Hanson said. "So we had to keep that in the back of our minds and just try and stay solid and not have any lapses."
"We knew if we relaxed, they'd get back in the game, so that was not an option for us," Morley said.
Despite losing the regular season conference title to Illinois this season, the Badgers were able to exact a little revenge on the Illini in the tournament title game Sunday.
As difficult as it was to lose out on a third-straight regular season conference title, the Badgers kicked off their postseason play by denying the Illini a repeat of the tournament championship.
"It takes a little chip off our shoulders," Owens said. "We know we came so close to winning the regular season title and they pulled it off and earned it and there's nothing else to be said about that. We just wanted to come out here in the tournament and make a statement, and we did."
In its first trip to the conference tournament's final game, Wisconsin prevailed in convincing fashion and in the process made school history.
"It was an unbelievable feeling, the first time in Wisconsin basketball history that we've done this and it feels great to be part of this history right now. It was a great game by Illinois and now, it's an unbelievable feeling," Mader said.
Playing at home
Following the win Sunday, the Badgers stayed at the Conseco Fieldhouse to hear of their NCAA tournament seeding for March Madness. To the disbelief of many, the Badgers garnered a six seed and surprisingly are scheduled to play in Milwaukee for the opening rounds.
"It's a great feeling to be playing in the state of Wisconsin," Nixon, a Milwaukee native, said. "We have our fans behind us and we are home and we definitely feel much more comfortable at home."
Less than two hours from Madison, the Badgers will undoubtedly carry a strong fan base at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. For many of the Badgers, it will also be a return to their home towns, which can only bring even more excitement.
"It's very nice, the fan base there is going to be huge and it's a great feeling knowing that we are going to a place where pretty much 90-95 percent of the people are going to be behind us," Owens said. "Just being close to home, our family, friends and fans it will be really nice"
"It's great," Hanson said. We get a chance to play and it is going to almost be a home game, there is going to be a lot of red there. We're excited to prepare for it."
Devin Harris leads Badgers to title
Wisconsin men's basketball notes
Photo gallery 1
Photo gallery 2
Wisconsin a No. 6 seed
Harris named tourney's Most Outstanding Player
Wisconsin 70, Illinois 53 (line score)
Complete Coverage: semifinal win over Michigan State
Complete Coverage: quarterfinal win over Minnesota
Big Ten Tournament first round coverage
NCAA Tournament bracket
Big Ten Tournament bracket