Correcting their first-half mistakes, the Wisconsin Badgers pulled out a huge conference win in a beautiful Big Ten basketball game in Bloomington over the Indiana Hoosiers 75-68 on Tuesday night. Ethan Happ’s game-high 19 points and Bronson Koenig’s perfect 5-of-5 shooting from behind the arc paced the Badgers.
Up eight points with 40 seconds remaining, No. 13 Wisconsin (13-2, 2-0 Big Ten) knocked down its free throws (a perfect 8-of-8 in the second half) and played solid defense to secure the win. No. 25 Indiana (10-5) fell to 0-2 in conference and lost its third game in a row.
Wisconsin got off to a blazing start, going up 13-0 to start after three Koenig (17 points, three steals) three-pointers and three Indiana turnovers forced a furious Tom Crean timeout less than three minutes into the game. After getting their lead up to 14, the Hoosiers battled back throughout the half by parlaying some poor shot selection from the Badgers into easy buckets. Quick, ugly shots from Hayes, Brown and Koenig let Indiana play its game: push the pace after a rebound and catch the defense off guard.
As the Hoosiers’ play improved, the game turned into a classic as both teams were giving it their all. The Badgers ran some crisp swing offense and utilized back screens and back cuts to get open on the perimeter for Happ (19 points, six rebounds, four assists) to sling the ball out or for drivers to dump the ball to as the defense collapsed in on the initial attacker.
Koenig picked up his second foul around the 10-minute mark and sat for the rest of the half, ultimately marking a major factor in the Hoosiers’ comeback. Meanwhile, the matchup between Nigel Hayes (10 points, two rebounds, two assists) and OG Anunoby heated up as the two athletic wings went at each other on both ends with Hayes trying to put the moves on in the post and Anunoby attacking from the wing and finding the backside.
With Hayes and Koenig on the bench, the Badgers ran the offense through their magnificent big man, Happ, who was the key to this game. Happ’s ability to draw fouls and the development of his playmaking ability were showcased tonight, especially with the other two stars on the bench. Happ’s mental development is obvious as his confidence is glaring. Specifically with Hayes and Koenig sitting, Happ knows that he’s the go-to guy and he showed it Tuesday night. Reading his matchup and using his momentum, Happ drove on his man from the elbow on multiple occasions and exploited the Hoosiers’ defense by indulging their assumptions of where he would go with the ball and instead attacking on his own (a dribble-handoff to Koenig became a drive down the lane and a layup, and a pass fake out to Koenig on the perimeter on the second half opened up a baseline drive).
Up 28-22 at the eight-minute mark, the Badgers were relying on D’Mitrik Trice to soak up Koenig’s minutes, and he was fairly successful. Committing zero turnovers as a team through the first eight minutes was a good sign of solid Badgers basketball, even if they were still giving the Hoosiers opportunities to get back into the game as they played better and better.
Two Indiana runs got the score to 32-30 with about 4:00 to go. A Vitto Brown turnover led to a spot up three from James Blackmon Jr., who was fairly quiet on the night with Zak Showalter (14 points, two steals) guarding him for the most part. Back-and-forth possessions near the end of the half ended in Happ picking up his second foul with 16 seconds remaining, making a clean second half from him even more important with Koenig on foul watch as well.
Going into halftime trailing just 38-37 was a highlight for the Hoosiers after rallying from being down 14 points, and a tough blow for the Badgers after shooting 16-of-31 from the field but a horrendous 1-of-6 from the free-throw line.
This second half was setup to be a great bout of basketball, and it didn’t disappoint.
As the two teams bounced back and forth in possessions, the Badgers and Hoosiers bombarded each other on the glass, trying to secure rebounds and swipe the ball away on defense. It got really sloppy at times, and the ball seemed to bounce Indiana’s way more often than not when the game got scrappy.
Trench warfare defined the second half, with Thomas Bryant showing he’s a force to be reckoned with and freshman De’Ron Davis playing a really special game. Davis is the first player I’ve seen just dominate Happ physically in the post on a couple possessions, and he seemingly single-handedly kept Indiana in this game for a stretch in the second half about five minutes in. Both teams were doing what they do best.
An in-sync Indiana possession was a sight to see with every player buzzing and weaving at speeds to discombobulate Wisconsin’s defense and open lanes and windows for Hoosier drives, shots and post-ups. The Badgers’ second-half offense was predicated on getting the ball into Happ or Hayes in the post at least once on each possession; a couple times the ball just kept rotating around the outside when Happ was on the bench, or everything was stagnant and the Badgers forced a contested shot.
Koenig hit his fourth three-pointer when Indiana led by two at 46-48, another cold-blooded pull-up jump shot with a hand in his face—a shot that’s becoming his calling card this season. The Hoosiers tried to combat and confuse a Badgers defense that was much improved in the second half thanks to smarter shot selection and more ball movement by having Juwan Morgan run the point and create more mismatches against their swift motion offense, a tactic they employed at the end of both halves as well.
Indiana’s inside game continued to come up big offensively and on the glass en route to a plus-seven rebounding margin (32-25) in its favor. Koenig’s three-pointer was followed by a Hoosiers offensive rebound, a Badgers steal that fed into a stagnant possession that had the ball wade around the ark like the paint was flooded, and then Robert Johnson sunk another three to tie the game at 54-54.
With less than seven minutes remaining, Greg Gard went with his starting lineup to close the thrilling final minutes out. Between a beautiful hook shot from Happ amid absolute chaos and an Anunoby lightning-quick baseline spin on Brown for a dunk, these teams poured their hearts out on that Assembly Hall court.
After that play, Wisconsin just played better basketball. A pitch-perfect pump-fake by Showalter opened a straight-line drive, allowing for an acrobatic layup at the rim. Bryant countered by dribbling for over 10 seconds and forcing Blackmon to launch a prayer as the shot clock ticked down. A pick on the wing between Happ and Hayes let Hayes drop the ball into Happ deep down on the block, drawing the entire defense in his direction, and he found Koenig open on the wing for his fifth three.
The score was 66-61 with 2:55 remaining when Happ registered his fourth foul against Davis. The ball kept bouncing in Indiana’s favor down the stretch, but the Badgers maintained their lead with solid offensive possessions and feisty defense down the stretch. Happ followed up a miss with a great drive against Davis on the next possession—a little payback for sure. Dribbling the ball and running some clock with just over a minute remaining, Koenig drove to the lane and dished to Brown on the wing, who knocked down the dagger after Koenig’s drive drew Morgan into the lane just enough for Brown to find space.
Downtown Vitto Brown with the dagger. pic.twitter.com/FYndpZE3ku— Big Ten Geeks (@bigtengeeks) January 4, 2017
These Badgers really wanted to win this game in one of the most hostile environments in America and put themselves in great positioning early on in their run for the Big Ten championship.
Odds and Ends
- Besides Brown’s three-pointer early and his shot late, he was fairly invisible throughout the middle of the game. I know Brown is one of the most derided players on the team, but from his awkward attempts at aggression this game and his inability to catch the ball cleanly, Brown needs to be present. It’s true that he’s had some big blocks in the past two games, a clear sign of his presence on defense and his hustle in transition, but the two that stick most clearly in my mind both ended in buckets for the opposing team. Highlight blocks are very exciting, but you know what’s really depressing? When the other team secures the ball because it bounces so far away and your own team can’t control it. Block-chasing often puts you out of position and opens up opportunities for the other team to dominate on the glass, which happened on multiple occasions in tonight's game. Brown also needs to clear out of the lane and let Happ work. On multiple possessions down the stretch, Brown was hanging out on the opposite block or cutting to it, mucking up the post and dragging unwanted defenders toward Happ. Vitto, let’s stick to spacing the floor, OK?
- The bench is pretty short right now, with only Trice, Khalil Iverson, Jordan Hill and Alex Illikainen registering minutes Tuesday night (no sign of my main man, Charles Thomas). Hill registered a three-trillion and Illikainen was a necessary body with Happ in foul trouble. The Badgers’ big-man depth is concerning and something to be monitored going forward with neither Thomas or Illikainen stepping up and Andy Van Vliet clearly not fit for real basketball minutes yet.
- I understand why Gard didn’t bring Koenig back in at the end of the first half, but he has to be thinking about it. Koenig is a senior leader who’s been known to knock down buckets and play hard, which would have helped a lot as the Hoosiers stormed back and the Badgers fended them off down the stretch to maintain their lead going into halftime. That will be something to monitor going forward, because there will be games where Gard needs to trust his older players at times like that.