Madison, WI – The Badgers tournament hopes remain alive and well after overcoming a 13-point deficit with only 12 minutes left in the second half, beating Illinois 69-60.

Ethan Happ had his eighth double-double of the season, managing an impressive 20 points, 12 rebounds and 6 steals on only 7 field goal attempts. Nigel and Bronson added 17 and 14 respectively, and great team defense in the second half helped Wisconsin extend its winning streak to 10 against the Illini. It wasn’t, however, peaches and cream for the whole game.

The Badgers got off to an incredibly sluggish start in the first half, fueled by poor decision-making that resulted in mediocre shot selection. Playing against Illinois’ four-guard lineup, it seemed like they wanted to establish an inside presence early, going right to Ethan Happ on the first possession for an easy layup. Happ was his usual aggressive self starting out with several rebounds and a couple of nice looks inside. Then, the Badgers decided they could outshoot the Splash brothers, and things got pretty ugly from there.

Outside of efficient first half performances from Happ (9 points on 3-4 shooting, 6 rebounds) and fan favorite Vitto Brown (7 points on 3-5 shooting, 3 rebounds, great national anthem rendition), Wisconsin’s offense was absolutely abysmal. And that’s putting it pretty nicely. Hayes and Koenig shot a combined 1-12(!) from the floor, “leading” the way to an 8-28 (29%) shooting effort, including a putrid 1-13 (8%) effort from beyond the arc. The Badgers were lucky to only be down 29-24 at the intermission.

Illinois picked things up in the second half right where they left off, hitting six of their first seven shots and quickly extending the lead to 13. The Badgers struggled to contain Illini guards Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill all game, and Hill got out to a blistering start after the break. Wisconsin also continued more of the same, settling for outside shots and failing to inbound the ball under the basket. You could feel the atmosphere getting tenser by the minute in the Kohl Center; after all, a home loss to Illinois could have ended the Badgers’ tournament hopes altogether.

Then, with their backs pressed against the metaphorical wall, the Badgers put together their best run of the entire season. They continued to chip away at the lead, fueled by great team defense, fundamental rebounding and much smarter shot selection. A 10-0 run made it a three-point game.

Bronson responded with a spot-up NBA-range three that tied the game at 46. A Happ steal led to a Nigel jumper, and all of the sudden Wisconsin had the lead, never to relinquish it. They continued to force turnovers, rebound the ball and hit big shots, supremely rattling the confidence Illinois had been building. All told, the Badgers put together an insanely entertaining, possibly season-saving 28-3 run in a span of about eight minutes.

One key aspect of the run was Wisconsin’s ability to get to the free throw line. They managed to get into the bonus with 12:45 remaining in the game, which is not coincidentally right when the Badgers started their game-changing run.

After the game, Illinois head coach John Groce emphatically said “fouling is a mistake,” but it was Happ and Hayes’ ability to get to the basket that kept the momentum of the run going.

I’ve already mentioned him several times, but Ethan Happ deserves his own paragraph at the very least. He was easily the Badgers best player tonight, with his defense, rebounding and ability to draw fouls contributing to a huge portion of that game-saving run. The best Badger possessions ended with Happ in the post, and even though he only attempted seven shots, he made 14 trips to the free throw line and converted on 10 of them. He also had at least three huge steals during the big run that continued to mount momentum in Wisconsin’s favor. Happ now leads the Big Ten in steals, and though Hayes laughed when he said it, he credits his ability to take the ball away to his time spent playing point guard growing up.

Hayes’ final stat line is solid, as it almost always is, but he was pretty invisible until six minutes into the second half. He is at his best when he is playing aggressive and driving to the lane to set up easy buckets for himself and his teammates. When he isn’t doing that, Wisconsin’s offense often turns stagnant. Happ is the reason the Badgers won today, and he continues to get better game by game. Oh, by the way, he’s from Illinois, and grew up as a huge Illini fan.

This team can give its fans heart attacks, but they continue to get better and find ways to get things done. Tonight’s win means the Badgers have one foot in the NCAA tournament, and they’re itching to make an appearance in March.

Their journey continues with their hardest remaining test, as they travel to Iowa to take on the Hawkeyes Wednesday night at 8:00 PM.

Game Notes

  • Wisconsin forced 12 turnovers and only had 7 themselves, and they subsequently won the points off turnover battle 16-6.
  • Illini outrebounded Wisconsin on both ends of the floor, even while mainly using a four-guard lineup.
  • Ethan Happ is the first Badger with 5+ steals in a game since Ben Brust did it three years ago. Coincidentally, Brust was in the audience for the game.
  • The Badgers had only 2 bench points, which came from Alex Illikainen.
  • Wisconsin shot 33 free throws, compared to Illinois’ 10.