If Wisconsin decided to create a midseason poster for this year's team, only one clichéd prop would be appropriate.
A hard hat.
Now the proud owners of a four-game winning streak, the Badgers are building something that could be special. Buoyed by a deliberate 9-2 run midway through the second half, Wisconsin (13-9, 5-4 Big Ten) methodically pulled away from Illinois (10-12, 2-7) on Sunday evening, 63-55, to reach a winning record in conference for the first time this season.
Freshman Khalil Iverson hit four straight free throws during the stretch en route to a career-high 10 points. Vitto Brown, still suffering from an undisclosed upper body injury was replaced by Jordan Hill in the starting lineup, also chipped in nine points in 12 minutes off the bench to give UW's reserves a 19-8 scoring edge over the Illini bench.
Every win is important for Wisconsin right now as it tries to revive its postseason chances, but winning on the road against teams below UW in the Big Ten standings is paramount. One needs only to look back at the trip to Evanston to think about what might have been.
Unlike its previous three wins, however, Wisconsin took care of business without a decided advantage at the free throw line. The Badgers did not shoot their first freebie until Iverson's first pair with 9:27 left in the second half. Wisconsin finished 17-of-20 from the charity stripe thanks to Illinois' comeback strategy.
Illinois shot 13-for-15 (86.7%) on free throws itself, but only 18-for-50 (36%) from the field.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin made just 2-of-14 three-pointers, but out-rebounded Illinois 37-25, echoing an early strength of this more blue-collar edition of the Badgers.
The Illini raced to an 11-4 lead out of the gate before Wisconsin settled down. Five different Badgers graced the scoring column before Nigel Hayes dropped a jumper to pull UW within one, at 18-17. Iverson got loose for two monster dunks in the first half -- one on a terrific steal near midcourt and another on a pretty feed from Hayes -- and eventually played a season-high 30 minutes.
A friendly bounce on Hayes' last-second jumper extended the Badger lead to 33-28 heading to the locker room. Hayes led the Badgers with 17 points.
After Wisconsin had taken control of the game in the second half, Illinois freshman Michael Finke exited the game following a collision with Hayes and did not return, a death blow for a team beset by frontcourt injuries this year.
To secure the victory Wisconsin had to withstand another late barrage by Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. The Illini duo deposited 14 of their combined 37 points in the final three minutes, but the Badgers sank 10 straight free throws in the final minute and seven seconds.