INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—Devin Harris stole the show. He flat-out dominated in Wisconsin's 70-53 trouncing of Illinois Sunday in the Big Ten Championship game, scoring 29 points, hitting pretty 3-pointers and making slam dunks while keeping Illinois defenders at bay.
Wisconsin won its first Big Ten Tournament Championship in school history while avenging a 65-57 regular-season loss to Illinois Feb. 18. The Illini had won 12 consecutive games, last losing Jan. 24 at Wisconsin. The Badgers won their seventh consecutive game and will have that momentum going when they face Richmond in the first round of the NCAA Tournament March 19 in Milwaukee, Wis.
"It's good for us. We are close to home," Harris said. "We're happy we're going anywhere and we can play in the NCAA Tournament. I think we'll get a great fan selection, so it was a good thing for us."
Harris, who hails from Milwaukee, had an outstanding run at the Big Ten Tournament. He made the 2004 All-Tournament team and was named the tourney's Most Outstanding Player after averaging 23.7 points per game.
But he could not win a Big Ten Tournament Championship alone and he had help from a strong supporting cast that stymied Illinois' offense and made crucial plays in the win. Junior forward Mike Wilkinson, the other regularly dominant presence who also made the All-Tournament team, contributed 11 points, five rebounds and four steals. Harris and Wilkinson have been the stories behind Wisconsin's tournament run but bench players also made significant contributions. After playing a fast-paced game with Michigan State, Wisconsin faced another high-energy game and the bench provided points and minutes while relieving starters such as Wilkinson and Harris.
Sophomore forward Ray Nixon was hot from behind the arc and up close, sinking two clutch second half 3-point attempts to help ice the game en route to eight points. He also grabbed four rebounds in 16 minutes on the court. Junior guard Clayton Hanson only had two points in his 27 minutes but had a career-high seven rebounds, all defensive, and played solid defense, often checking Illini guard Deron Williams. Wisconsin out-rebounded Illinois 34-27; of those 34 rebounds, 25 were on defense. Wisconsin dominated on the boards and Hanson, Wilkinson and sophomore guard Boo Wade pulled down a combined 18 defensive rebounds.
"Defensively, I thought we did a great job, I really did," Ryan said. "I thought we were energized, Ray Nixon off the bench, [junior forward Zach Morley], Clayton, [sophomore center Andreas Helmigk] to some extent for the time that he was in, everybody stuck to the rules pretty much and stayed committed."
Wisconsin's defense held Illinois to just 53 points, far below its season average of 73 and contained sophomore guards Dee Brown and Williams to 15 and 14 points respectively on a combined 10-for-25 shooting. Illinois shot 29 percent from the field in the first half and hit only 16 of 49 field goals for the night.
"It's the first time in a long time where things didn't go our way," Weber said. "We've had great starts to almost every game and this time it didn't happen. … They just get the little extra bounce, get to the rebounds, they would get two tips and we wouldn't even get near it, so that was the key to the start, I thought."
Ryan credited his players' ability to chase down scorers and shots to the team's success.
"I'm very proud of these guys to be able to chase the shooters and the scorers from Illinois and keep them from getting good looks," Ryan said. "They can score so many points in such a short period of time, you just can't give them any space. I thought our guys did a real good job of hedging or chasing on the screens and that made a big difference, it made it tougher for them."
Despite the tough loss and the broken win streak, the Illini are optimistic about beginning another winning streak when they play Murray State March 19 in Columbus, Ohio, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
"We lost to Wisconsin by 20 at their place and then came back to win 12 straight so now we have to focus on playing Illinois basketball the way we were," Williams said.
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