The 6-foot-8 senior forward scored a game-high 28 points here Tuesday night, in leading the Badgers to a dramatic 62-60 victory over Indiana, with third place in the Big Ten on the line.
However, it was not a 3-pointer or a post move that set Wilkinson apart Tuesday – though he had plenty of those – but rather what he did when things went dreadfully wrong.
He did not blink.
With 2:50 left Tuesday and Wisconsin clinging to a 55-54 lead, Wilkinson calmly stepped to the free throw line.
He bricked one charity shot. Then he bricked another. And Indiana soon took a 56-55 lead.
Wilkinson, though, stayed aggressive, drawing another foul with 1:50 remaining, this one the fourth on IU guard Marshall Strickland. Wilkinson then missed again, his fourth straight miss in this game.
He made the second, though, to tie the game, and hit the first of a pair of free throws 36 seconds later to make it 57-56 UW. He missed the second, though, and was at that point a less-than-stellar 2 of 6 from the charity stripe in the last three minutes and 2 of 7 from the line in the game.
Still, Wilkinson did not blink.
"What's great about what Mike Wilkinson was doing at the end; I've seen guys who are missing free throws who stay so far away from the basketball, they don't want to go to the line again," Ryan said. "How about Mike? He just couldn't wait to get up there again and I love that about him. I have seen guys over the years… [who] are missing free throws and they disappear, they just drift away. Not Mike; he wasn't going anywhere except to the free-throw line again. Those last two were big."
Sure enough, Wilkinson remained assertive, drawing freshman forward Robert Vaden's fifth foul with 47 seconds left to play. It was Vaden, incidentally, who had successfully checked Wilkinson in the final 17 minutes, holding him without a field goal after he had dropped 23 points on IU in the first 23 minutes of the game.
But here was Wilkinson, intently placing the game on his shoulders. So with 47 seconds showing on the clock he made two straight free throws to put UW back ahead 59-58. He then made 1 of 2 with 24.2 seconds left to make it 60-58.
Indiana would tie the game 10 seconds later on a put back, setting the stage for the game's thrilling conclusion.
Alando Tucker, Wilkinson's tag-team partner on this night and for much of this Badger season, missed a 3-pointer from near the left corner. But he charged hard to the goal, looking for a rebound.
He found one, care of Wilkinson, who fended off two Hoosiers to snag the carom of Tucker's initial miss, reaching the ball back towards the rim as his momentum pushed him towards the baseline. Wilkinson's desperation shot fell short, but there was Tucker snagging the loose ball and alertly tipping it towards the rim, the ball releasing from his fingers a split second before the final buzzer sounded.
"We made a couple plays at the end and especially the big one," Wilkinson said. "I've always said it just comes down in close games to whatever team makes more plays. We just happened to make one more than they did."
The Kohl Center erupted. It erupted again moments later, after the officials conferred around the scorer's table, verifying with video replay that the shot was legitimate.
Wisconsin 62. Indiana 60.
"It's a sickening feeling," IU guard A.J. Ratliff said of UW's last-second win. "We let them get two offensive rebounds and we have to pay for it in the end."
It was an uncommon finish to a somewhat common performance for Wilkinson and Tucker, who are making a habit of putting this Wisconsin team on their backs.
Wilkinson's 28 points came on 10 of 17 from the field. Tucker posted 17 points on 6 of 14 shooting. The duo's 45 points, 16 field goals and 31 field goals attempts were 73, 80 and 63 percent of the Badgers' collective output Tuesday, respectively.
It was the third consecutive game that Wilkinson and Tucker have accounted for more than half UW's points. They have combined for more than 30 points in six straight games.
"Tucker and Wilkinson, they stepped up and made plays," IU coach Mike Davis said.
Midway through the second half it looked like Tucker's evening might be done. The athletic 6-foot-5 forward made an aggressive move to the hoop, but as he attacked the rim, he twisted in midair, trying to get off a shot as he collided with Vaden. Tucker somehow managed to make the shot but Vaden inadvertently cut his legs out from under him, sending Tucker careening awkwardly to the floor.
Tucker landed violently on his left hip and lay on the court in obvious pain. Slow to get up, Tucker nevertheless got to his feet, stepped to the line and made the free throw, giving UW a 51-43 lead with 10:10 remaining.
Tucker looked a little tight for a few minutes after the injury but he regained the spring in his step, a spring Indiana had few answers for.
For the first 23 minutes here Tuesday night, however, it was the elder statesman Wilkinson who took a young Indiana team to school.
Wilkinson had 19 points at halftime and had upped his tally to 23 with 17:05 left to play. Primarily working against freshman forward D.J. White, Wilkinson scored on post moves, drives to the goal and 3-pointers.
In stretches, he was unstoppable, helping UW build a 37-30 lead at halftime and a 44-34 lead with 16:25 left in the game, when his ball screen freed Sharif Chambliss for a 3-pointer.
Wilkinson, though, did not make a field goal in the final 17:05 of the game, as the Hoosiers shifted Vaden on him defensively.
Indiana clamped down on more than just Wilkinson. After Chambliss' step-back jumper at 9:35, the Badgers did not convert another field goal until Tucker's buzzer beater.
During that stretch, Wilkinson made just 5 of 10 free throws; Tucker 1 of 3. But Wisconsin managed to pull out the win, a victory that puts them one game up on Indiana and Minnesota for third place in the Big Ten with one game remaining.
Winning is the game's best salve. Rather than the clang of a missed free throw, the indelible images from Tuesday's game will be Wilkinson making three clutch free throws and, of course, Tucker's tip-in.
"Sometimes when one thing is not going [well], you just have to keeping fighting and good things happen," Wilkinson said. "That's what happened tonight."
Charity stripe unkind
All told Wisconsin made 16 of 27 free throws for a 59-percent evening. Indiana actually shot an even lower percentage, making just 9 of 17 charity attempts (53 percent).
"We shot terrible from the free-throw line and that came back to bite us in the butt," Ratliff said.
Wilkinson passes Harris
Mike Wilkinson surpassed Devin Harris (1,425), Clarence Sherrod (1,408) and Cory Blackwell (1,405) on the Badgers' all-time scoring list Tuesday, his 28 points giving him 1,431 for his career.
Wilkinson is now the No. 7 scorer in Wisconsin history.