Wisconsin (18-8, 8-5) entered the game at Northwestern in hopes of pulling even with both the Buckeyes and Iowa atop the Big Ten standings. With road games left at Michigan State and Iowa in their final week, Welsh-Ryan Arena stood as the least hostile gym the Badgers would travel to during that final run. Now, they will face an uphill battle the rest of the way and cannot afford another misstep.
The second half was either team's to take on Thursday night, with only a combined 15 field goals scored past halftime. A day earlier Ohio State emphatically proved they belong atop the standings by handing Michigan State its first loss at home. With a chance to state its own case, Wisconsin looked hesitant for most of the second half.
Northwestern played a 1-3-1 zone that flustered the Badgers into just 8 of 25 shooting in the second frame, including a run of nearly 12 minutes in which the team made just one field goal.
On most of their trips up the floor, Wisconsin settled for deep perimeter rotation, typically bringing the ball up the right side and swinging it over to the left and back without working it in. Ray Nixon for one was unable to get good looks from 3 as he cheated out further to help. The Badgers, and in particular Alando Tucker, did not find a way to penetrate the paint as frequently as against previous zones.
"We didn't do a good job trying to attack," point guard Kammron Taylor said. "We relied too much on our outside shot instead of trying to get it into the paint."
Northwestern outscored UW 32-18 in the paint and actually out-rebounded the Badgers – something they had not done against a Big Ten opponent all season. Big man Brian Butch, who was coming off probably the best week of his career, managed just two points on 1-for-4 shooting. The ball rarely got inside to the Wisconsin bigs.
"We kind of kept the ball up a lot," Butch said. "(The ball movement) wasn't there at all, and I don't know exactly what that's from."
The lack of penetration was evident in free throw comparison as well. Northwestern went 16-for-20 from the stripe in the second half compared to just 5 of 9 for the Badgers. UW drew six fouls on the Wildcats relatively early in the second half but never took much advantage of the bonus down the stretch.
Thursday night resembled a number of other Badger contests this year in which they found themselves down by a few baskets several minutes after halftime. Like their games at Michigan and Purdue or at home against Illinois, Wisconsin waited until it was too late to answer with a run of their own. Again, hoping for missed free throws became their best shot.
"They didn't miss the last nine-and-a-half minutes from the free throw line," coach Bo Ryan said. "But the key is, don't get behind. Then you don't have to foul."
With that absence of a take-charge attack, Wisconsin has now left the fate of the Big Ten race out of its hands. A win at Iowa to end the season could give the Badgers the edge over the Hawkeyes, but Illinois waits in the wings. Above that at 9-4, Ohio State seems to be the most likely candidate to rise above the fray.
The Buckeyes host Michigan on Saturday, then travel to Northwestern in their only remaining road game before closing out the season with Purdue. Wisconsin will need to steal at least one on the road and hope for a couple of upsets for a share of the conference crown.
For now there will be little time to dwell over what might have been, as one of the hottest teams in the conference, Minnesota, comes to the Kohl Center on Sunday. Ray Nixon day – as he is the lone UW senior – is a must-win for a team that could easily end up at .500 in the conference if it does not play its best games.
"We're definitely disappointed," Taylor said. "Our back's against the wall right now and we have to rely on other teams losing, and from here on out every game is a do or die."
Butch could only surmise that Thursday was about a lack of execution more than anything else. Wisconsin looked lost both trying to stop Mohamed Hachad from getting easy baskets and then attempting to mount any sort of rally once he cooled off. Tucker added that the Badgers lost their composure down the stretch. Whatever it was, it was not pretty.
"We didn't play like a team who was fighting for first place," Taylor said.
They may not get another chance.