CHICAGO -- What a difference 20 minutes of basketball can make.
After hobbling into halftime trailing 35-30 to fourth-seeded Purdue (21-12) in Saturday's Big Ten tournament semifinal, the top-seeded Badgers (30-3) turned on the jets and cruised to a 71-51 victory, putting themselves squarely in the driver's seat for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Having watched both Duke and Virginia lose in conference tournament semifinal matchups on Friday night, the Badgers entered Saturday's game with an opportunity to get into position for the school's first-ever top seed.
Wisconsin struggled out of the gate, but finished with arguably its best half of the season, outscoring Purdue 41-16 over the game's final 20 minutes. Sophomore guard Bronson Koenig, who struggled out to a 1-of-6 start from the field, scored 14 of his career-high 19 points in the second half.
"I thought we played pretty well..." Koenig said of the second-half turnaround. "We finally started pushing the ball and when we do that we are one of the best teams in the country."
Though the offensive surge might get the box score attention, it was the UW defense that really seemed to turn the tide. Wisconsin forced nine Purdue turnovers in the second half, turning those takeaways into 13 Badger points.
"We finally got some steals and got out in transition," Koenig said. "That really gave us a spark."
Key to the defensive turnaround was the Badgers' ability to finally contain Purdue junior center A.J. Hammons. After scoring 10 first-half points on 4-of-7 shooting, the Gary, Ind., native was held scoreless in the second half, committing three fouls and missing four shots before heading to the bench with just over eight minutes remaining.
"We ‘cat-and-moused' a little bit," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said of the Badgers' approach against Hammons in the second half. "But I thought one-on-one Frank [Kaminsky] did an unbelievable job of not allowing Hammons to score."
"We just wanted to make it as tough as possible to get him the ball and then when he got it we had to make sure we raided the post well," Wisconsin sophomore forward Nigel Hayes added. "I think we did a good job of that [in the second half]."
As the defense led to a resurgence in the Wisconsin offense, Purdue's chances at an upset began to fade away. Wisconsin started the half with eight straight points to regain the lead for the first time since there were more than 13 minutes left in the first half, pulling away with yet another run of 11 straight points over 2:42 that pushed the lead to 13 with 6:49 left in the game.
While UW once again raced out to an early lead by scoring seven points on its first three possessions, Purdue responded much like Michigan did yesterday, countering with a 15-2 run that gave the Boilermakers a seven-point lead halfway through the first half.
After Wisconsin countered with five straight points to pull within two, Purdue pushed back with a 7-2 run over its own to erase the UW run and restore the seven-point lead heading into the final media timeout of the half.
"We were behind for a reason," said junior forward Sam Dekker, who finished with 15 points and eight rebounds. "We just needed to get some stops."
As they did against Michigan on Friday, the Badgers closed the gap quickly in the later stages of the opening stanza, posting a 9-2 run in a span of 2:39 to pull even at 30 and force a Purdue timeout with just over one minute until halftime.
But out of the timeout, Purdue immediately fed the post and regained the lead on an easy bucket from Hammons, his final points of the afternoon, and putting the very partisan Wisconsin crowd back in its respective seats.
Koenig had an opportunity to pull UW back even, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity, giving Purdue the final possession. At the other end, Kaminsky was able to poke the ball away from Hammons in the post, but it ended up right in the lap of Purdue freshman P.J. Thompson, who drilled an open three to give Purdue a five-point cushion at the halftime break.
"We played hard and there were a couple of fluke plays that they got and made," senior guard Josh Gasser said of the first half. "But we needed to take it up a notch. We were only guaranteed another 20 minutes in this tournament."
Despite the first-half struggles, Wisconsin's final box score once again looks like a model of balanced offense. Four of UW's five starters finished in double figures and both members of the starting frontcourt finished with five assists.
But after senior forward Duje Dukan gave UW eight crucial points off the bench in Friday's win over Michigan, it was another duo from the UW bench that provided the Badgers with an invaluable contribution, albeit one that might not show up as readily in the box score.
Sophomores Vitto Brown and Zak Showalter helped contain the Purdue offense during key stretches of the first half, allowing the UW starters to get much-needed rest, and came up with some crucial hustle plays that energized the crowd and the rest of the UW rotation.
"They were huge," Gasser said of the plays made by Showalter and Brown. "Stuff like that wins you games and that's what you need from your bench."
Those contributions from the Badger bench, particular if and when senior guard Traevon Jackson is added to the UW reserve repertoire, could be the difference between an early exit from the NCAA tournament and yet another Final Four run. With March being all about avoiding the off night, having more and more contributors helps bring a level of consistency Wisconsin needs to make a deep run.
"If we can just put a full, 40-minute effort together, that would be great," Gasser said. "This time of year, you have to play your best."
Though a No. 1 seed is now squarely in the Badgers' crosshairs, taking home another Big Ten title on Sunday takes first precedent.
"I really have never talked about seeds ever," Ryan said. "I want all my energies to go to the game tomorrow."