MADISON -- In the first half against Michigan on Sunday night, the Wisconsin Badgers were limited in their ability to score in the paint and it showed, as they trailed the Wolverines at halftime.
Over the second half, Wisconsin attacked the paint to the result of seven consecutive layups during a run that sparked the Badgers to a 68-57 win over the Wolverines on Senior Night at the Kohl Center.
After scoring just six points in the paint in the first half despite a clear size advantage, Wisconsin responded with 20 over the game’s final 20 minutes.
"I think we did a better job of just finishing around the paint, did a better job of playing inside-out," Badgers interim head coach Greg Gard said.
With the victory, Wisconsin’s 10th in its last 11 games, the Badgers moved into a four-way tie for second place in the Big Ten with two remaining.
Bronson Koenig scored a game-high 19 points, Nigel Hayes finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists and Vitto Brown added 14 points for Wisconsin.
On Oscar Night, however, the award for "Best Moment" went to rarely-used guard Jordan Smith, the team’s lone senior. Smith checked into the game with 34 seconds remaining and sunk a pair of free throws before bowing out of the game to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd.
"It was great," Koenig said. "It was great to see him get out there and get to the free-throw line, too. He's just a guy who comes ready to practice every single day, doesn't complain and just does his job and makes everyone else better."
A staple of their defense all season, the Badgers were once again able to cut down on Michigan’s potent shooting attack. The Wolverines, who averaged 25 three-point attempts per game at a 39.8 percent clip coming in, attempted only 13 threes, making just five.
"I thought for the most part we did a pretty good job of taking away what they like to go to," Gard said.
The noted marksman Brown poured in the largest contribution to the Wisconsin shooting effort from deep. The junior forward hit a career-high four triples and Koenig made three of his own.
As a team, the Badgers shot 49 percent (24-for-49) and scored 1.097 points per possession. Michigan shot at nearly the same clip, finishing at 48 percent; it, however, only scored .919 points per possession.
Though the outcome was favorable for the red-and-white, a win for the Badgers wasn’t always the clear-cut ending on Sunday.
Michigan jumped out to a seven-point lead in the first half and led 30-29 at the intermission. Both teams exchanged leads at the outset of the second half until Wisconsin’s directive to get to the basket swung the balance.
A Koenig layup sparked a streak of seven consecutive layups for the Badgers, who held Michigan to 1-for-9 shooting over a 15-5 run that solidified their lead.
"Once we started hitting shots in the second half, they couldn't be as willing to dump down on us and so we were able to have more room to operate," Ethan Happ said.
Wisconsin’s string of paintwork gave it a nine-point advantage at 52-43, but a Zak Irvin layup and Doyle dunk drew Michigan within five with under five minutes to play. The Wolverines had an even stronger chance to slice into the Badgers’ lead, but Derrick Walton Jr. missed an uncontested layup and Irvin couldn’t connect on a good look of his own at the rim.
The Wolverines missed their chance and Wisconsin went to its crunch-time shot maker. Koenig took a feed from Hayes near the top of the key and buried his third three-pointer.
Hayes came away with a steal on the other end and Brown buried the dagger with a corner three to give Wisconsin its then-largest lead of the game at 58-47.
Irvin led the Wolverines with 14 points on 6-for-13 shooting, while three other players chipped in 10 points apiece.
Wisconsin received big contributions down low from Hayes and Happ, in particular. Hayes went 4-for-5 and Happ was 3-for-6 from the field in the second half as Michigan failed to come up with an answer for the Badgers' big men.
Happ finished with 12 points and six rebounds, enough for Wolverines head coach John Beilein to sing his praises.
"Happ’s been a great addition," Beilein said. "It’s like the same movie that I’ve seen many, many times with a post man that really does a lot things, keeps the ball active."
Beilein ended that sentence and paused before digressing.
"They were a much better team than us in the second half today."
That seems to be the consensus from a healthy dose of Big Ten coaches after playing the Badgers, who seem to playing their best ball at the most important time of the season.
After all, in a couple of days, it will be March.