NEW YORK — It was a cold, cold day from the floor, but somehow, miraculously, the Wisconsin Badgers emerged with a victory vs. the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on the back of an incredible game from sophomore Ethan Happ.
No. 15 Wisconsin (17-3 overall, 6-1 Big Ten) came into the Super Saturday showdown at Madison Square Garden scorching hot, riding a four-game win streak and winning 13 of 14 games. The Badgers, having dispatched Penn State on Tuesday in a 27-point victory over the Nittany Lions, looked to keep pace with Maryland at the top of the conference with a win.
Rutgers (12-9 overall, 1-7 Big Ten), after a blistering start that saw the Scarlet Knights rush to an 11-1 record, has struggled mightily in conference play, notching only a single win against Nebraska and failing to get past The Bachelor in Drew Hamm’s estimation.
All of this recent history was rendered irrelevant on Saturday, as the Badgers narrowly survived the Scarlet Knights 61-54 in overtime. Wisconsin, down nine with three minutes to play, made big shots (and, more importantly, big free throws) when it needed to and Rutgers failed to close, allowing UW to emerge with the win.
Happ, the reigning Big Ten Co-Player of the Week, came into Saturday the Badgers’ leader in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in conference play. He dominated offensively for Wisconsin, scoring 32 of the team’s 61 points while adding six rebounds.
Rutgers did not have any answer for Happ. The sophomore imposed his will down low for long stretches and snared the game-tying basket with two seconds remaining in regulation when Rutgers opted not to foul him.
Senior Bronson Koenig came into the game on fire from downtown, shooting 57.5 percent from beyond the arc in Big Ten play. Koenig finished the game 2-of-13 from the floor (2-of-10 from three-point range). Senior Nigel Hayes, averaging 15.0 points in his previous 14 games, was held to seven points.
The seniors, however, came up huge in the overtime period. Hayes had two big buckets, including an and-one, and grabbed a big offensive rebound off of a Happ missed free throw. Koenig finished the game with 10 points and converted four critical free throws down the stretch to close out the win.
Both teams struggled with shooting all game long. “Nobody could really throw it into the ocean for most of the game,” Koenig said afterward.
Wisconsin finished the game shooting 33.3 percent from the floor, 12 percent from three-point range and 64 percent from the line.
“Obviously they try and make things hard on you and if you don’t shoot well, then you can be in these types of games... we just had to keep having confidence that one of them was going to go down,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said.
Rutgers slashed 35.2%/30%/65% and missed a couple of critical free throws in the fourth quarter that could have sealed the game.
While notionally a home game for Rutgers, the majority Wisconsin crowd was quiet for long stretches before coming alive during the rally. By the time the final horn sounded, the World’s Most Famous Arena was the Kohl Center East.
“It’s always a special thing when you play at MSG,” Happ said. “You don’t really think about it too much, but then at the end there when you look around and you’re at MSG and you have so many great Badgers fans. ... It’s really amazing how well we travel and how well the alumni support us.”
There’s no time to rest and recover for the Badgers. Wisconsin travels to Champaign-Urbana on Tuesday to take on Illinois (8 p.m. CT tip).