MADISON — To welcome the students back to campus, the No. 17 Wisconsin Badgers played host to the Michigan Wolverines in a classic Big Ten matchup. Wisconsin came into this one winning 10 of its last 11, while Michigan has been up and down at 12-6 overall, with a 2-3 record in the Big Ten season. It was not the prettiest contest, but the Badgers got the victory, 68-64.
In campus-driven Madison, this Super Tuesday showdown on ESPN was pegged as an event to help welcome back students from Winter Break, as well as a big birthday party for senior guard Zak Showalter, who turned 23 today.
After a couple misses on both ends, the Badgers scored three buckets in a row to go up 8-4 on the Wolverines, including two pretty three-pointers from Bronson Koenig and Vitto Brown. Zak Irvin hit his signature midrange jumper to give himself, and the team, six points at the first media timeout.
Big men Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ were very aggressive early for the Badgers, which is a good sign for things to come, combining for nine of the team’s first 14 points to lead 14-10 at the 11:58 mark.
The next four and a half minutes were molasses-like, with the teams combining to score just 11 points, mostly in the post. A couple highlights were a Happ rejection, and then a Nigel Hayes finish with the foul on the other end.
The first half was very much a defensive battle, with the home team Wisconsin leading at the break 26-21. Both teams shot under 40%, while Brown and Irvin led their teams with nine points each, respectively.
Happ got the second half started with a beautiful feed to Brown in the post, who was up to 11 points with that bucket. Derrick Walton Jr. had a couple nice plays in a row, to put the Wolverines on a 7-0 run and tie the game at 28 in the second half.
In such a slow, grind it out game, there was a bit of a scary moment out on the court. Irvin, Koenig, Brown, and Iverson all dove on the hardwood for a loose ball, and the latter two Badgers were both slow to get up.
Shortly after the battle for the ball, Michigan took a 34-29 lead at the 13:45 mark, with Brown and Koenig having come back from the locker room and a bloody nose.
Michigan extended their lead to 38-30, and the comfort level in the Kohl Center was certainly wavering. Freshman D’Mitrik Trice then made a free throw and hit a big three in the corner to help jumpstart a 6-0 Wisconsin run, which woke up the crowd.
Hayes and Happ started to take over and tie the game at 43 for the Badgers with under eight minutes left, as this one was a dogfight. The Wolverines went on a 6-0 run to go up 49-43.
Wisconsin answered right back with a 12-0 run, including 10 for Koenig off two dribble drives and deep threes. With two and a half minutes to go, the Badgers led 55-49, which quickly became 58-49 after a three from Nigel.
After a couple back and forth scoring possessions, the Badgers led 60-54, with under two minutes to play. From this point on, the game basically consisted of fouls and free throws, as Wisconsin held on to win, 68-64.
When he had to, Koenig played hero, and it wasn’t his first time doing so for this team.
With Michigan’s loss, longtime Wolverines coach Jon Beilein’s record fell to 2-16 against Wisconsin. The Michigan coach was asked about this, and gave credit where credit is due.
“They’ve had some better teams, but Bo Ryan and Greg Gard are just two tremendous coaches,” Beilein said after the tough loss.
Senior Bronson Koenig took over the game, and both Gard and Koenig talked about this after the contest. “It was big for Bronson to have played really well,” said Gard. “I didn’t think he played very well until that point in the second half.”
“I wasn’t getting looks, but I’ve taken over the game before,” Koenig explained.
He has, and will likely continue to do so as the season marches on.
With the win, the Badgers move to 15-3 on the season, moving into a tie for first in the Big Ten with Maryland (4-1). The Badgers will take on rival Minnesota (15-4, 3-3) in the Twin Cities on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. CT.