Seemingly unable to throw a beach ball into Lake Michigan if he was standing on the lakeshore, Hughes, for the first 26-plus minutes Wednesday, frustrated himself and onlookers with his misses, almost biting off more than the senior captain could chew.
When the numbers got as bad as 0-of-9, including 0-of-5 from three, Wisconsin's senior captain finally got his compass pointed in the right direction.
Hughes scored 14 of his 16 points in the final 6 minutes, 52 seconds to help No.13 Wisconsin – playing its first game without second-leading scorer Jon Leuer – out play a talented Northwestern club down the stretch to earn a hard-fought 60-50 victory in front of bipartisan 6,566 fans at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
"It's important to get this one under our belts, especially on the road," said Hughes. "We didn't have too many of these last year. It's just motivation and a great confidence builder."
Wisconsin (14-3, 4-1 Big Ten) didn't have a made field goal for 8 minutes, 2 seconds midway through the second half, a span that included 13 missed free throws from the floor, but were still in the thick of things due to the play of senior Jason Bohannon (a game-high 19 points) and sophomore Jordan Taylor (10 points), who was making his first career start in place of Leuer.
Hughes was mostly a bystander, scoring only two points on two free throws, but the embers were starting to glow. With his team down 42-39, Hughes made his first bucket, a three from the right elbow. He was unconscious until the final horn sounded.
Hughes made a driving lay-up two possessions later and after Drew Crawford sank a three pointer for Northwestern (12-4, 1-3), Hughes quickly answered on the sequence of the evening.
With Northwestern leading 48-46, Hughes missed a three-pointer but Taylor grabbed one of UW's 15 offensive rebound and swung the ball back to Hughes, who sank a three-pointer to give the Badgers a 49-48 lead with 4:54 to go. UW never trailed on the 14th and final lead change of the game.
"That's the one that gave me a little more confidence," Hughes said of the play. "I am not proud (of my shooting), but we got it done. My shot starting picking up at the end when we needed it."
Hughes hit three-pointers on UW's next two possessions, both on feeds from Taylor (one of the sophomore's seven assists), to give the senior 14 points in under four minutes of game time and push the lead to seven. When the dust had settled, Hughes scored 14 of UW's final 21 points and Northwestern was done for.
"It was a lot of fun," Bohannon said of watching Hughes. "He was getting those open shots, they weren't falling the first half, and then he found his groove. He hit those couple in a row. That shows his confidence and how much he has matured. It shows his experience to put up that open shot."
Sophomore forward John Shurna led Northwestern with 15 points, but the Wildcats, who entered the night as the Big Ten leader in scoring in conference games (73.7), were no match for the Badgers' defense and their Big Ten-low 52.3 points per game. The Wildcats made only two field goals in the final 14:36, allowing UW to close the game on a 14-2 run.
More importantly, Wisconsin snagged 12 straight rebounds (6 offensive, 6 defensive) until Northwestern got a meaningless rebound with only two seconds left on the game clock.
"We put a lot of emphasis on rebounding and second-chance points," said Taylor, as UW won the rebounding battle (38-29) and outscored NU on second-chance points (17-8). "Pop cashed in for us a lot of situations. He was the guard that we know he can be all the time. He looked like an All-American out there. When he does that, he's as good as any guard in the country."
Bohannon carried Wisconsin in the first half with 10 points, helping the Badgers grind to a 27-27 tie at halftime, despite getting only two points from the bench and shooting 2-of-10 from three-point range.
Playing against a 1-3-1 zone defense that typically carves up younger freshman, Bohannon, making his seventh career start against the Wildcats, used his first-half knowledge to find lanes to the basket and deliver the easy lay-ins.
"That's the whole thing, stay patient within our offense and find those open shots," Bohannon said.
Taylor was pressed into the starting lineup for the first time as a college athlete and after missing his first three shots, Taylor found his niche running the point, scoring seven of his 10 points in the first half and finished with seven assists and zero turnovers – the eighth game this season where he's been flawless handling the ball.
"The reason we lost here a couple times was because we threw the ball all around the gym," Ryan said. "I thought he (Taylor) did a great job of reliving some of the pressure off Trevon and running the show himself when he was available."
Although the guard trio of Bohannon, Hughes and Taylor scored 45 of UW's 60 points, the Badgers had plenty of grinders in the paint, as junior Keaton Nankivil scored eight points, made all four of his free throws and grabbed five rebounds and freshman Mike Bruesewitz grabbed four offensive rebounds in nine minutes.
It's a big reason the Badgers are bringing back a win for their fallen brother.
"We just stuck to our game plan, we didn't change anything up," Bohannon said. "We lost a big contributor to our team, but other guys stepped up and guys contributed somehow. Coach always has that mentality of next guy in line. We had a couple of those guys ready to do and they are going to keep getting better."