The 6-foot-7 senior swingman was a driving force for the North Carolina State men's basketball program the past four seasons and was a star through two NCAA Tournament victories this year.
Wisconsin knew that and knew Hodge needed to be contained.
Mission accomplished. Badger guard Clayton Hanson and forward Ray Nixon pestered Hodge into a 4 of 16 shooting night, holding him to 14 points—his low tally in this tournament—and helped UW advance to the Elite Eight with a 65-56 victory in the semifinals of the Syracuse Regional.
"I just think they played great position team defense," N.C. State head coach Herb Sendek said. "They played really hard but they also played really smart."
After Wisconsin rallied to take a 10-point second half lead, Hodge tried valiantly to will the Wolfpack to victory, as he has so many other times in his career. But rather than striking the pose of victory, Hodge was a picture of frustration late in the game.
"I think late in the game he wanted to make plays," said Hanson, who did not agree that Hodge was frustrated. "That's what he was trying to do. He made some plays and we were able to stop him on others. Fortunately we stopped him enough times to walk away with a victory."
The Badgers' defense in general, and in particular on Hodge, was key in their ability to advance to Sunday's Syracuse Regional Final, one win away from the Final Four in St. Louis.
Hodge had hit 33 percent of his 3-point attempts in five postseason games entering Friday, but Wisconsin dared Hodge, who was a 26 percent 3-point shooter overall, to take perimeter shots, with Hanson often sagging 3-4 feet off of him when had the ball. When Hodge drove, UW typically had a forward rotate to the basket to help contest the shot.
"We knew he didn't like to shoot a lot of outside shots," Nixon said. "He was a guy that likes to drive people. He can create a lot for his team doing that. We just had to stay down and stay in front of him."
The game plan paid off.
Hodge still focused on getting to the lane, but he tried to force UW to come out and guard him on the perimeter and was 0 of 4 on outside jumpers in the first half, including one badly missed 3-pointer.
Hanson and Nixon did a good job on Hodge defensively from the opening tip, with Hanson taking on the responsibility at the onset and Nixon checking him for most of his eight minutes.
Though N.C. State led 30-21 at halftime, Hodge had factored very little on the scoreboard at that juncture, with just three points.
Despite Hodge's 1 of 7 shooting performance in the first half, N.C. State's offense still went predominantly through its effervescent leader, who had three assists at the break and five in the game. Hodge aggressively attacked the basket throughout the game, but he forced a few bad shots and struggled to finish around the basket.
Early in the game Hodge overpowered Hanson, missed a short field goal attempt and tipped in the rebound to tie the game at 5-5. Hodge was able to drive past Hanson for a layup early in the second half and he earned six trips to the free throw line after halftime, connecting on five.
But more often than not Hanson got the better of the matchup, forcing Hodge to take one difficult shot after another — when he could get a shot off at all. Hodge was called for charging a few possessions after his first-half field goal. He was called for a second charging violation early in the second half, as he tried to back Hanson down.
Hanson said: "I knew that was the key… If we could draw a couple fouls on him early, one or two, that might discourage him from doing it later in the game."
Hodge never backed down, continuing to drive the ball down the lane until the end. His steal and lay in with 5:10 left to play brought the Wolfpack within 53-49, but they would draw no closer.
"He had a couple spurts where he was starting to heat up or whatever," Nixon said. "We got back to our principles. I think it frustrated him a little bit."
Tale of two halves
North Carolina State made its first six 3-point attempts of the game to build a 23-13 lead with 10:12 left in the first half, but made just three of its last 16 triples.
"I think in the second half they probably did a great job adjusting to our offense," said forward Ilian Evtimov, who made 2 of 7 3s. "We just didn't make the plays. We had some open looks and we just didn't convert."
Cameron Bennerman's second triple gave the Wolfpack an 8-7 lead 3:48 into the game. After UW took a 9-8 lead, an Evtimov 3 made it 11-9 and jumpstarted a 15-4 State run. During that stretch, guard Engin Atsur made two triples and center Jordan Collins got in on the act, prompting a UW timeout.
After the game-opening 3-point bonanza, though, the Wolfpack went cold.
"In the first half, I think we did a great job looking for each other, and making great passes, and everybody just knocked shots down," Evtimov said. "The second half was the total opposite."
Wisconsin held an opponent to 60 or fewer points for the eighth time in the past nine games…. In three NCAA Tournament games the Badgers' opponents have made 18 of 54 3-pointers (33 percent). Wisconsin led the Big Ten in 3-point percentage defense this season (32 in conference games).