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Wisconsin rides Bronson Koenig to second-half surge in win vs. Michigan

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It wasn’t easy, but the Badgers’ second-half performance avoided what would have been a tough loss to the Wolverines.

On a night when Michigan and Wisconsin matched their natural environment in the first half—ice-cold—both teams summoned the summer solstice for a scorching second half riddled with back-and-forth runs. Eventually the Badgers pulled out a win 68-64 win against a Wolverines team playing one of its best games of the season.

Bronson Koenig came out of the woodwork to score 12 of his team-leading 16 points in the last six minutes, bringing Wisconsin back from being down six to leading by six. Koenig’s clutch shots were helped by a feisty Zak Showalter making prototypical hustle plays down the stretch, timely free throws from Jordan Hill and a beautiful fast break led by the fleet-of-foot Ethan Happ.

Wisconsin came out firing with Vitto Brown and Bronson Koenig knocking down early three-pointers, while Ethan Happ (5-of-13 from the field, four offensive rebounds) and the Badgers struggled with Michigan’s length inside, missing shots at the rim.

Coming out of the first break though, Wisconsin kept attacking the paint. Happ went at Mark Donnal and drew two fouls, completing the three-point play on the first one while the second led to an aggressive drive down the lane from Brown as Michigan was caught loading the inbounding side of the floor.

Clumsily committing mostly unforced turnovers on three straight possessions, the Wisconsin unable to capitalize on a couple of airballs from Michigan, which hit two three-pointers, one a prayer as the shot clock wound down. In transition, the Badgers loaded one side of the floor as an isolated Nigel Hayes dribbled up the left side; one hesitation dribble later, he put in an a layup and drew a foul.

The Wolverines hit another three-pointer as they continued to run the Badgers’ defense around screen after screen, pushing the usually fundamentally-sound defense to its breaking point and getting open looks on the arc. Wisconsin cleaned it up though, forcing multiple turnovers and bad shots from Michigan. However the Badgers’ offense grew stagnant, the ball failed to enter the lane without Happ in the game and upon his return he struggled to put it in with Moritz Wagner playing some solid defense.

Eventually getting some penetration, Koenig received a pass cutting into the lane from the left wing and one-touched the ball to Brown on the left block for an easy layup.

On the next possession, Brown drove from the wing and put the moves on a smaller defender, spinning inside and plopping in a nice hook shot. The half ended with Hayes stealing Michigan’s inbounds pass to stunt the Wolverines’ final play and neither team reaching the bonus.

Scoring a meager two points in the final seven minutes didn’t help Michigan, which scored a measly 21 points in the first half, its season low, on 32 percent shooting to put the Badgers up by five points at halftime. By settling for poor shots, running a lackadaisical offense and missing shots at the rim, the Wolverines remained in control while Brown recorded a team-high nine points, two rebounds and an assist on smart, aggressive play both offensively and defensively.

Straight out of the second half Wisconsin went to Happ, who missed more early bunnies and subsequently picked up his third foul. Although the offense was moving and screening at a furious pace, the Badgers settled for some poor shots as their 30 seconds dissipated and their troubles at the rim continued. Meanwhile, Michigan went on a 7-0 run to start the half as Derrick Walton Jr. hit a three-pointer and Wagner went to work on Wisconsin’s weak inside defense with Happ on the bench.

After a patient bucket from Wagner following a Wisconsin switch, Michigan picked up its sixth and seventh fouls to put Wisconsin in the bonus and Koenig at the free-throw line. A lucky situation for the Badgers, who have struggled at the free-throw line this season (and in this game, going 14-of-24) and especially against the Wolverines, the most infrequent foulers in the nation.

With no hedging help from Happ, Zak Irvin drained two straight jumpers running off screens above the free-throw line. The arena stood still, mouths agape as WIsconsin’s anemic offense hadn’t hit a field goal in over seven minutes while Michigan was poised to take over the game. Quickly quieting the feeling of despair, a D’Mitrik Trice three-pointer pulled the Badgers to within four thanks to an offensive rebound from Happ after a J.J. Watt-inspired swim move off a missed free throw got the stadium buzzing again.

A three-pointer from Duncan Robinson was answered by a fabulous Showalter drive and patient pivot that got him a bucket directly under the rim. Hill hit his first basket of the night, a beauty of a step-back from just below the arc. Doing what he does best, Happ stole an inbounds pass, and a subsequent Hayes/Happ pick-and-roll got Happ an up-and-under layup and a foul to tie the game at 43-43 with eight minutes remaining.

Michigan swiftly answered with back-to-back three-pointers from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson after costly back-to-back Wisconsin turnovers.

In a game that continued to swing back and forth in score and momentum, tWisconsin’s resounding reply was a Showalter offensive rebound put-back. Defensively, Showalter worked his tail off over a screen to block a Michigan mid-range jumper.

Koenig took control from there as the Badgers’ starting lineup worked itself back into the game again. Extending his arm fully against a still-settling Michigan defense for a transition bucket, a baseline-drive reverse layup and a pair of beautiful back-to-back three-pointers put the Badgers up six points as clutch Koenig caught fire in the Kohl Center.

Hayes followed that up with a straight-away three-pointer that bounced off the back of the rim and straight down through the net, his first three-pointer in six games. Wagner’s free throws ended the Wisconsin’s 15-0 run over four minutes, which led to a Michigan press. In an incredible feat of hustle for the big man, Happ inbounded the play and then released for the outlet, received the pass from Koenig, dribbled past halfcourt and dished to Showalter, who dropped in a tough layup.

The Badgers seemed in control with their eight-point lead at 62-54, but a Walton three-pointer and an Abdur-Rahkman layup sandwiched the struggling Hayes’s trip to the free-throw line. Hill went 3-of-4 on free throws in the waning seconds after getting a generous foul call, avoiding a possible jump-ball. Walton’s drive around the stumbling Brown resulted in a hopeful leap from Brown in search of a highlight block, but instead Brown bludgeoned Walton in midair, crumpling atop him and leaving him limping to the bench with five fouls. Hill’s only miss was snatched out of mid-air by Hayes, who missed both subsequent free throws. With three Michigan starters out of the game with a handful of fouls, a fumbled steal from Xavier Simpson barely bouncing on the out-of-bounds line deflated the Wolverines’ chances of an upset in icy Madison.

Odds and Ends

  • Koenig was shut down for three-quarters of the game, as invisible as he was against Purdue. We saw the Koenig from the non-conference season late in the game, and that’s the Koenig Wisconsin’s going to need to get through this subpar but scrappy Big Ten schedule. The penetration he got during that run is something he should be doing throughout the game. Koenig’s clutch gene was throbbing Tuesday night, especially with the rest of the team falling apart at the free-throw line, but the Badgers need him to be making plays the entire game.
  • Brown showed it in the first half: his ability to make plays is useful and crucial to this team, specifically when Hayes, Koenig and/or Happ are on the bench. He showed his versatility scoring inside and outside, and his ability to leverage his inconspicuousness and defense-stretching can open up back-cuts and weak-side action for wide-open looks and arm-flailing demands for the ball.
  • Happ struggled again at the rim. I’m sure he’ll recover, but this is his third game in a row where he’s faced some difficulties. He continues to make plays—see the fast-break play late in the game and his timely steals—but his dominance has been shaky. Teams are learning to defend his reptilian flexibility and frustrate him, but there’s no doubting there’s more to this kid who may have stagnated against stiffer competition, an increased workload and more responsibility and dependency. Also, now that uber-athletic big men are all the rage, Happ’s surprising quickness and speed in the paint and in the open court are something to marvel at. He’s exceeding any and all expectations.
  • The bench was nonexistent, so it’s a good thing Wisconsin got its starters lots of rest earlier in the season. The starting lineup was the impetus for both second-half comebacks, with Hill and Trice adding a couple of much-needed shots in the second half. Khalil Iverson continues to struggle offensively and the Alex Illikainen confidence-boosting Ohio State game didn’t seem to have the impact we expected. Possibly an explanation for the poor free-throw shooting down the stretch, the Badgers’ starters are playing great but they’re gonna need help as the season wears on.