CHICAGO -- It wasn't easy, but then against it never is during the month of March.
Despite a sloppy start and hot shooting from Michigan's depleted back court, the 6th-ranked Badgers (29-3) gutted out a 71-60 win over 9-seed Michigan (16-16) and will play for a second straight year in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.
In a game eerily reminiscent of the teams' last matchup on January 24th in Ann Arbor, Michigan weathered a quick start from the Badgers, who scored on each of their first 3 possessions, and responded with a 18-6 run that gave the Wolverines a 9-point lead with 8:11 left in the first half.
Michigan's early lead was built almost entirely on the shoulders of junior Spike Albrecht, who scored the last of his 10 points on a three-point shot that gave Michigan what would ultimately be its largest lead of the afternoon, and sophomore Zak Irvin, who contributed 10 points of his own to the early push and would ultimately finish with a game-high 21 points to go along with a team-high 11 rebounds.
"They make a lot of threes so they are never really out of a game," Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes said of Michigan. "We were able to weather the storm they had in the first half when they almost pulled away from us and we were able to weather it again when they tried to make a comeback."
After Albrecht hit his final jump shot to put Michigan up 9, Wisconsin junior forward Sam Dekker took over. Having missed three of his first four shots from the field, the Sheboygan, Wisconsin native finished inside on three straight possessions to keep UW within 5 heading into a media timeout just inside the five minute mark of the half.
"We were having a lull there and Michigan was making a run..." Dekker said. "Frank was off the floor and getting a rest so someone needs to step up and make plays."
In Ann Arbor, the Wolverines led with 3:13 remaining in the first half and failed to score during a crucial 9-0 run that gave Wisconsin a 30-23 halftime lead. On Friday, the Badgers held Michigan scoreless over the final 3:35 and ran off 10 straight points to turn a 5-point deficit into a 5-point advantage.
"We needed [Dekker] today," senior guard Josh Gasser said after the game. "That first half wasn't the prettiest for us offensively but he was able to make enough plays to get us over the hump."
Having missed 8 consecutive three-point attempts, the Badgers seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief when sophomore Bronson Koenig knocked down the first of back-to-back triples that first gave Wisconsin a lead and then pushed that lead out to five heading into the break.
"I thought it was pretty big," Koenig said of the boost his jump shots gave the Badgers. "I was just trying to be aggressive. Frank did a good job of finding me and I knock them down."
Wisconsin seemed on the verge of pulling away at the beginning of the second half, but Michigan seemed to match every UW basket and never allowed the lead to grow beyond 7 points. After an initial miss, the Wolverines hit 9 of their next 11, going on an 8-0 run over a span of 90 seconds that transformed a 5-point UW lead into a 3-point Michigan advantage.
"Michigan is the type of team that can knock anybody off just by getting hot..." Dekker said. "When it goes back and forth like that, those are the type of games you just have to grind out."
After a Wisconsin timeout to bring Dekker back in for the struggling Frank Kaminsky, the Badgers turned to senior reserve Duje Dukan for the spark that would ultimately pull them over the top. Out of the timeout, Dukan, who was 0/3 from the field in the first half, caught a pass on the left wing from sHayes and nailed the three-point jumper to bring UW back even at 44 a piece, erasing what would be Michigan's final lead of the afternoon.
"I was just hoping to help my team as much as I could," Dukan said. "Its my last run and I just want to contribute as much as I possibly can, especially in an environment like this."
Dukan, who has struggled with his shot throughout Big Ten play, turned a corner last weekend in Columbus and seemed to finish the turn Friday afternoon. The Deerfield, Illinois native followed the game-tying three with another triple to give UW a 49-46 lead and capped off the pivotal spurt with an emphatic drive and dunk to push the Badger lead to 6 and force a Michigan timeout.
"I think that definitely contributed to getting me out of the slide," Dukan said of last week's effort. "Just to see the ball go through the net, it's a big confidence booster."
Despite once again being on the verge of closing out the Wolverines, UW just couldn't put Michigan away. Irvin continued to hit tough jumpers and eventually pulled UM even at 54 with just over 6 minutes remaining. But after struggling throughout most of the game, Kaminsky finally made his impact, scoring on consecutive possessions heading into the 4-minute mark to put Wisconsin once again up 4.
As they did all afternoon, Michigan responded to cut the lead in half, but on the ensuing possession, UW finally put the hammer down. Kaminsky missed an interior look but wrestled away a loose ball, finding Gasser on the wing just as he was loosing his balance. Gasser reversed the ball to Koenig, who made the extra pass to Dekker for a three-point bucket that put the Badgers firmly in control with 3:42 left.
"That's one of those plays you have to make... Gasser said. "Its one of those hustle opportunities you need to win a game."
While the Badgers came out with a win, Michigan was able to frustrate the UW offense more than virtually any opponent has been able to thus far this season. The Wolverines forced Wisconsin's frontcourt into uncomfortable positions throughout the game and created turnovers that led to transition buckets, keeping the Wolverines tight for the entire 40 minutes.
"They did what a lot of teams are doing now with us. They put the big guy on me and try to have the small guy harass Frank..." Hayes said of the Michigan defense. "I think we still did a good job of trying to get it inside. Frank didn't have a great game but he still played well for us
"They definitely played a lot more man [defense]. We prepared for a zone throughout the week because they threw that at us in Ann Arbor..." Gasser said of the Michigan defensive looks. "They really had a great game plan and played aggressive right from the start."
Having survived their first true scare of the postseason, the Badgers now move on to a Big Ten semifinal against either Penn State or Purdue. With a potential Number 1 seed just two wins away, the Badgers seem as focused as ever.
"We've been through pretty much everything so we are pretty used to games like this where the other team is one fire and coming at us like that," Koenig said. "We were ready for it."