MADISON, Wis. - When you live by the three, you'd better be prepared to die by the three. The No. 19 Badgers found that out first hand against No. 3 Ohio State Saturday afternoon, when 5-of-27 shooting from distance put extra nails in their coffin in a 58-52 loss to the Buckeyes. The Badgers fell to 18-6 (7-4 Big Ten) with the loss, while the Buckeyes 20-3 (8-2) solidified their hold on first place in the conference.
But despite their poor shooting performance, Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said he was happy with the shots his players took. But unfortunately for the Badgers, they almost never got a shot to fall when they needed one.
"You can take an overlay of the shots," Ryan said after the game. "Space between the defenders, things like that, I thought we did a great job of touching the post by our dribble - a post feed and knockout. Our shoulders squared and feet looking at the basket, it had to be at least 90 percent of those. I can think of one, possibly two, that weren't those type of 3's. When we're hitting them, we can look pretty good on the offensive end."
"Everybody was getting open looks, and we've got to knock them down," Wisconsin forward Mike Bruesewitz said. "We did a good job moving the ball ... we've just got to knock shots down when we're open."
For the most part, it was a back-and-forth game to the end. Neither team led by double digits at any point in the game, and the lead changed a total of 10 times. Ohio State took a four point lead into halftime, 28-24, and would largely hold the Badgers in check until late in the second half.
With just under four minutes to play, the Badgers were able to cut Ohio State's lead to one point on a 5-0 run, capped off by a three pointer from Bruesewitz. Leading just 51-50, the Buckeyes were able to force a rare turnover by point guard Jordan Taylor after Aaron Craft missed the first part of a one-and-one. Ohio State guard William Buford then made the Buckeyes' only three-pointer coming out of a timeout, giving Ohio State a four point lead and bringing any momentum the Badgers had to a screeching halt.
"I think my turnover and Buford's three was a pretty key sequence in the game," Taylor said. "It put them up four, kind of a big momentum swing. We just didn't execute."
Aside from their cold shooting performance, the Badgers' biggest problem was defending Ohio State center Jared Sullinger. Sullinger looked at ease down low, putting up 24 points in the game, as well as pulling down 10 rebounds. The 6-foot-9 center also drew plenty of fouls, and knocked down 8-of-10 free throws as a result.
But whatever difficulty the Badgers had guarding Sullinger in the first half, they were better able to contain him in the second half. 16 of Sullinger's 24 points came in the first half, but he still did his fair share of damage after the break, putting up eight points on two field goals and four free throws.
"At the start of the game, I didn't do a good job of limiting (Sullinger's) touches, let him get a couple easy ones early, and it kind of set the tone from there," Wisconsin forward Jared Berggren said. "Once he gets a little bit of confidence, he's hard to stop. I've got to take a little blame for that."
But what did the Badgers do differently in the second half to limit Sullinger's effectiveness? It seemed as though Ryan had forward Ryan Evans take over responsibility for Sullinger, but Ryan said they didn't alter their strategy too much in the second half.
"We did not play him differently by assignment, by scouting report, or anything else," Ryan said. "It's about execution. Some of those teams that doubled him paid big time."
On the whole it was a disappointing night for Taylor, who finished with 12 points but also committed an uncharacteristic three turnovers. That doesn't even compare to the near-herculean effort he had against the Buckeyes in 2011, where his 27 points led the Badgers to an upset win at the Kohl Center. Part of the problem was that the Badgers got to the charity stripe just three times in the game, with Taylor shooting and making all three.
"I felt like I could have made more shots, been more aggressive in the second half, but (there's) nothing you can do about it now," Taylor said.
Evans led the Badgers in scoring with 14 points off of 7-of-14 shooting. Bruesewitz recorded a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds, but had four personal fouls in the game. The Badgers' bench was largely invisible, with forward Frank Kaminsky scoring just three points off the bench. Sophomore guard Ben Brust went 0-for-7 from the floor, missing all three of his three-point attempts.
While the loss sets the Badgers back to third place in the Big Ten standings, they still have seven Big Ten games left, including a rematch with Ohio State in Columbus. The Badgers travel next to Minnesota to take on the surprising Gophers, who are 16-7 (4-6) even without star forward Trevor Mbakwe, who missed the season with a torn ACL.
"It's not over," Taylor said. "The race is still there. It's obviously a big disappointment when you have a chance, when you fight back and kind of squander it away. There's no time to mope or feel sorry for yourself. We've got to go try and beat Minnesota on Thursday."
So while the Badgers might have missed out on a chance to take over first place in the Big Ten, there's still time to continue their comeback after a 1-3 conference start. They're certainly not out of the title race yet, but desperately need to find some consistency in their shooting if they want to keep themselves within striking distance of a Big Ten championship.