MADISON, Wis. - An ugly win is still a win. It was far from pretty, but the No. 14 Badgers were able to eke out a 52-45 win Tuesday night over the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The No. 14 Badgers (22-8, 11-6 Big Ten) shot just 19 percent from the floor in the first half, but trailed the Gophers (17-13, 5-12) by just seven points after Minnesota shot just under 27 percent from the floor going into the intermission. With the win, the Badgers locked up a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament next weekend, while the Gophers saw their losing streak stretch to six games.
Just saying it was an ugly game doesn't quite do it justice. In addition to combining for just 23 percent shooting from the floor in the first half, the Badgers and Gophers combined for 43 personal fouls in the game, and both Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan and Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith were charged with a technical foul on the night.
With a first-round bye at stake, the Badgers knew they needed to get their act together quickly in the second half if they wanted to avert the upset from the rival Gophers, who took the Badgers to overtime in their last game in Minneapolis.
"At this point in the season you have to come out ready to play, and we didn't do a good job of throwing the first blow," senior point guard Jordan Taylor said. "But we did a good job in the second half of finding a way to turn it around."
After struggling to get anything going in the opening minutes, the Badgers seemed to wake up after the officials charged Ryan with a technical. Trailing 22-13 late in the first half, Ryan was hit with a foul for arguing with the officiating crew. But even though Gopher guard Andre Hollins hit both of his free throws after the foul, Ryan's foul gave new life to his players, who went on a 9-2 run to tie the game early in the second half. After the game, Ryan played down his foul's impact on the game.
"If that's what it takes, coaches would do that all the time," Ryan said of his exchange with the officials.
But whether or not Ryan thinks his outburst helped the team, his players thought it gave them some momentum, even if it was indirectly.
"Generally when he gets a technical he's not happy about something," Taylor said. "It's just more of an indirect way of him telling us to get it going. It helped a little bit to jump start us, but we have to do a better job of not letting it get to that point."
Whether or not the Ryan's technical helped the Badgers, they came out in the second half and tied the game four minutes in on a three-point play by junior forward Mike Bruesewitz. That sequence turned out to be important, as the officials initially called Bruesewitz for a charge, but eventually reversed the call and gave a foul to Hollins instead.
Smith was not happy with the reversal, and called it "a joke" in his post-game press conference. The officials later gave Smith a technical of his own, helping the Badgers into the bonus early in the second half.
Those extra free-throw opportunities were big for the Badgers, who shot 22-of-29 from the line on the night. The additional free throw opportunities helped stabilize Wisconsin's scoring, as they still went cold for stretches in the second half.
"Getting to the free throw line was huge in this game," junior forward Ryan Evans said. "That was definitely big down the stretch. And I think they kind of struggled down the stretch with some of their free throws so that probably hurt them."
Taylor led all scorers with 22 points on the night, mostly on the strength of his 11-of-12 mark from the charity stripe. Evans was the only other Badger player to reach double-digit points, extending his double-figure scoring streak to eight games.
Up next, the Badgers host the Illinois Fighting Illini in their final regular season game of the year. Seniors Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson will take the court for a final time at the Kohl Center on Senior Day, and the Badgers will look to extend their winning streak to three games.
But Tuesday night's game should serve as a rude reminder for the Badgers about what can go wrong when shots aren't falling. They were able to mount a comeback against a struggling Gopher team, but tournament season will not be so forgiving.