WASHINGTON, D.C. – Coming off an impressive win against the hot Indiana Hoosiers to kick off Wisconsin’s postseason, the No. 24 Badgers faced the Northwestern Wildcats in this Big Ten Tournament semifinal, the first in Wildcats’ history.
Wisconsin used a very balanced offensive attack and tough defensive performance to top the Hoosiers, and looked to continue that on Saturday.
Unlike the contest against Indiana, this one got off to a very slow start, especially for the Wildcats, who didn’t make their first basket until three and a half minutes into the game. Wisconsin air balled their shot two of the first three possessions, and NW turned it over.
That didn’t last long for Wisconsin, though.
Bronson Koenig kept up his hot shooting with the first five points for UW, followed by five from fellow senior Nigel Hayes. Hayes was very aggressive early, scoring on a pretty spin move leading to a dunk, as well as a three.
Over four minutes in, Wisconsin led 10-2 over Northwestern.
Koenig and Hayes kept the scoring going, and Zak Showalter joined in on the fun as well, as the three seniors combined to score 23 of the Badgers’ first 24 points.
The other point was from Ethan Happ on a free throw. Normally, that wouldn’t be very noteworthy, but after a slow start, Happ went 6/9 from the line, an area where he is often criticized.
Happ also made two buckets from the field, and somehow with only four players having scored, Wisconsin led 38-21 at the half. The 21 points was Northwestern’s lowest first half point total of the season.
The Wildcats made a little run as Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey got going, but could never truly gain any ground in the first 20 minutes. With Khalil Iverson out, Jordan Hill, D’Mitrik Trice, and Brevin Pritzl played some nice defensive minutes off the bench.
With a 17 point lead at the intermission, Hayes decided that wasn’t enough, hitting a three that bounced just about everywhere to open the second half scoring, extending the lead to 20. Very shortly after this, Ethan Happ had one of the prettiest spin moves you’ll ever see from a big man, followed by two made free throws.
About four minutes in, Wisconsin led 45-28.
The Badgers kept extending their lead, as Trice had a beautiful pass to Alex Illikainen in the post, making his first bucket in a while. Vitto Brown then had a great spurt, hitting a three, and blocking the shot and forcing a jump ball on the other end.
If the game hadn’t already belonged to the Badgers, it certainly did during the next five minutes of this one.
Wisconsin went on an incredible 19-9 run, where they could literally do no wrong. Brown hit another three, and then Trice hit one, and then the team would force back-to-back turnovers.
It was truly a joy to watch, the kind of joy Badger fans expected to feel coming into the season with all this experience.
With under seven minutes left, Wisconsin led 64-39.
Hayes was asked about how he handles a slow start like he had today, which included two air balls to start the game.
“Oh yeah, keep shooting,” Hayes said. “I mean just keep swimming, just keep shooting. I can’t miss forever, and I won’t miss forever. I work too hard, put up too many shots.”
Happ did better than usual from the free throw line today, and Koenig shared his thoughts after the contest about how it feels for the team.
“You guys all see him shooting hundreds of thousands of free throws before and after practice every day,” Happ said. “And it’s nice seeing that pay off for him now, especially when it counts.”
After the easy win, the Badgers will now face the Wolverines in the Big Ten Championship game tomorrow afternoon at 2:00pm CT here in D.C.
The team’s plan for the game, according to senior Zak Showalter, is all about March.
“It’s tournament time, and it’s our last go-around in this tournament,” Showalter said. “So, I think we’re all just leaving it on the court. You know, you can’t take anything with you, and we’ll be looking back on this one for years to come.”