Badger defense paves way to victory

Spartans' Ager, Davis held in check

MADISON—Michigan State's first possession of the second half told the story for Wisconsin's defensive performance Sunday. Maurice Ager, who had been hounded to 2-for-10 shooting in the first half, was stymied on an attempted drive from the right wing as Badger center Brian Butch slid over to provide help defense. With the shot clock running down, Ager passed to the Spartans' other perimeter star, Shannon Brown, who air balled a 3-point attempt with Butch's hand in his face.

As Brown's shot tailed toward the Kohl Center floor, the shot clock struck zero. The violation came in the midst of what became a 13-0 UW run that blew the game wide open, as the Badgers pulled out to an incredible 49-26 lead.

"That is something that does temporarily energize (a team)," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan acknowledged. "If you can get a team, when they are not trying to do it, and get them to use the whole shot clock. I think that's something that defensively helps and it's an encouragement. Plus the guys on the bench got into it."

The Badger bench was euphoric. The Kohl Center crowd was in a frenzy, tasting a significant, emphatic upset over the nation's seventh-ranked team.

The Badgers got it done with defense Sunday. In-your-face, physical-yet-fundamental defense. The Spartans' big three—Ager, Brown and center Paul Davis—came into this game with exceptional credentials. Averaging a combined 58 points per game this season, all three were on an All-Big Ten team last season.

None of that mattered Sunday, when only Brown did any real damage on the scoreboard before the Badgers had a 20-point lead in hand.

"No team's going to do well if two of their three best players don't play well at all and two of ours have really struggled in the first two (Big Ten) games," MSU coach Tom Izzo said.

Brown did his best to keep MSU in it, scoring a game-high 31 points, including 18 in second half.

It was a far less productive afternoon for Ager and Davis, who were flustered for most of the game. They were held down in MSU's Big Ten-opening loss at Illinois, scoring 21 points on 6 of 17 shooting, and were even more beleaguered versus Wisconsin.

Davis, averaging 19.3 points per game, was held scoreless at halftime and had just two points in the game—a mid-range jumper with 16:42 left to play that made it 49-28 UW. He sat late in the first half with foul trouble and late in the second half due to ineffectiveness.

Ager, who averaged 21.1 points per game before Sunday, shot a miserable 5 of 19 from the floor for 11 points, and was 2 of 13 before making three straight shots midway through the second half. By then it was way too little too late for MSU.

The Badgers' defense saw to that.

"There's not a team in the country, including Wisconsin or anyone else… if the top two players don't play well you're going to struggle to win," Izzo said. "We struggled to even look respectable in my mind."

Wisconsin centers Jason Chappell and Greg Stiemsma and forward Marcus Landry each took turns checking Davis. They received plenty of help from their teammates, who were quick to rotate down to double Davis when he made a move to the paint.

"We played good team defense," UW forward Brian Butch said. "We helped, we hedged and we did everything we had to do. You could sense that they were frustrated a little bit but I always thought that they were trying to make that push."

MSU struggled from start to finish. Even though the team opened the game with an 8-0 lead, Izzo questioned Ager's shot selection. Davis did not spend much time in the post, which Izzo said was not in the game plan. In turn, Davis' struggles on the offensive end may have affected his defense.

Wisconsin took full advantage, scoring 21 points off MSU turnovers and dominating the interior, with a 30-16 advantage in the paint.

"There's been a lack of focus in there by (Davis) and I don't know what the reasons are but I'm going to try to address them in the next three days," said Izzo, whose team next hosts Indiana Jan. 11 before traveling to Ohio State Jan. 15.

Davis appeared to draw a favorable matchup 12 minutes into the first half, when UW's defensive rotations left him one-on-one with point guard Kammron Taylor on the left baseline. Taylor gives up nine inches and nearly 100 pounds to Davis. But as the Spartan big man backed him down, Taylor gave him the slip, moving swiftly around Davis to pick his pocket. Taylor then raced down the floor and knocked down a jumper in transition to give UW an 18-15 lead.

"I knew Davis was going to try and post me up," Taylor said. "People always look at that like it's a mismatch but Coach always tells us that even if you're a smaller guy, just try and hold your own. I just used my quickness to my advantage and right when he put the ball on the floor, I snuck around him and stole it."

It was Taylor's second consecutive steal and transition bucket, providing the first four points in a 14-2 run that gave the Badgers a 28-17 advantage.

Michigan State made just one of nine shot attempts during that span and turned it over three times.

"I give credit to Wisconsin, but I think sometimes you've got to give blame," Izzo said. "I don't like to admit that, because then I've got to take it myself.

"So maybe you've got to give more credit to Wisconsin for their size. I think Taylor plays pretty well defensively. But you've got to give some blame to Michigan State on that too."

Ager and Davis in particular struggled, shooting a combined 2-for-14 in the first half and 6-for-25 in the game. For Davis, Sunday was his lowest scoring output since he was held scoreless against the Badgers on Feb. 11, 2003.

"Overall, we've done pretty well," Butch said. "Our bigs played big, made it difficult. And that's our jobs. We've got to try to make it difficult on every post player."

Yes, MSU could have played better. But credit Wisconsin's defense, which did a very good job cutting down dribble penetration and keeping the Spartans from working their offense out of the post. Sunday, that was a recipe for an overwhelming victory.

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