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Wisconsin coasts to road win at Illinois

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After going to OT with Rutgers, Wisconsin bounces back nicely.

The Wisconsin Badgers improved to 9-1 in Big Ten play by systematically dismantling the Illinois Fighting Illini on both ends of the floor for a 57-43 victory Tuesday night in Champaign.

In one of the most balanced scoring efforts of the season, the Badgers (19-3, 8-1 Big Ten) had eight players score, but only Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes were in double-digits with 14 and 11 points respectively. Happ recorded another double-double, adding 13 rebounds and two steals.

Bronson Koenig hit important shots in the first half and dished three dimes, while Zak Showalter hit timely three-pointers when the Illini (13-10, 3-7) crowd was on the verge of rowdy. Vitto Brown played without his knee brace and looked limber and athletic to the tune of seven rebounds, four on the offensive glass.

In his best game since the conference season started, Charles Thomas IV played solid back-up minutes for Happ, grabbing two rebounds, swatting two shots from the back side, putting in a solid bucket on a great roll to the rim and committing only one foul!

After hitting five shots in the entire first half against Rutgers on Saturday, the Badgers came out and hit five before the first media timeout, and it didn’t stop there. Burrowing and slashing down every opening in the Illini defense, the Badgers beat their big men inside and knocked down outside jumpers to pull out to a large 21-10 lead eight minutes into the game.

Although they gave up a couple early offensive rebounds, defensively the Badgers forced the Illini to shoot mid-range jumpers and long three-pointers early. The Happ pick-and-roll game was the deadly play on the offensive end, resulting in buckets for Happ and the ball handler.

Everybody seemed to be contributing on the offensive end, but the Badgers’ defense stifled the Illini, including a good run from Thomas, who registered a beautiful back-side block to deny an easy layup.

Five-minute stretches with zero made field goals plagued both teams in the first half. The Illini used a zone to confound the Badgers and force turnovers for a couple quick buckets in transition, and the Badgers found different ways to weasel into the heart of their zone and get open shots for Thomas rolling hard and Koenig on the wing.

With 90 seconds left in the half—in one of the most quintessential Wisconsin possessions I’ve ever seen—Aaron Moesch and Happ registered back-to-back-to-back offensive rebounds, giving the Badgers myriad opportunities to extend their halftime lead. In the marathon possession, Koenig missed another step-back jumper, but Brown snagged a ripe offensive rebound, tipping the ball in at the apex of his leap to give the Badgers a 33-20 lead going into the half.

Eight Badgers scored in the first 20 minutes, with Koenig’s nine points leading the squad in points. They controlled the pace of the game by grabbing nine offensive rebounds and notching three steals in a first half that featured only two free throws and nine fouls total.

Illinois’s defense came out working their tails off in the second half, forcing early turnovers as WIsconsin tried to thread the ball into Happ in the post. Happ picked up two early fouls in the half, one on an egregious call after he tipped the ball out toward half court and dove for it fully outstretched. On the ensuing possession, you could tell he wanted to take the game over on the offensive end.

Tearing the ball away from Abrams in mid-air, Hayes flew in out of nowhere to slam the ball in for a crowd-silencing dunk tip.

After dominating the boards most of the game, the Badgers conceded multiple offensive rebounds to the Illini as they surged back into the game, cutting the lead to six and rallying their crowd. Happ committed his third foul out of frustration, but the next time down the court Showalter knocked down a smooth three-pointer from the top of the key, hushing the crowd with a silencing swish.

Help defense was very important for the Badgers with the dynamic duo of Thomas and Khalil Iverson sliding over for crucial blocks to save the day. Inking his double-double for the night, Happ received an entry pass in deep as the ball swung around to the left side and then dropped in a perfect lefty hook.

Both teams kept up their stout defensive efforts down the stretch. The Illini went another five-minute stretch without scoring and the Badgers appeared harried and out of sync, turning the ball over by passing into the paint too early and at bad angles.

Buckling down on the defensive end, typical ball movement and efficient shot selection helped the Badgers salt the Illini out of the game and come away with the victory.

Odds and Ends:

  • Other than one or two stretches in each half when they got a little sloppy, the Badgers played their tempo the entire night and put together a great defensive effort in holding Illinois to 28 percent shooting overall, 24 percent three-point shooting and only nine rebounds. They were dominant on the boards (47-36) and held one of the best scorers in the Big Ten, Malcolm Hill, to a measly 10 points. Their help defense and rotations were great all night and they stayed out of foul trouble for the most part. Illinois has been red-hot at home, so holding them to only 43 points was no easy task.
  • Another shoutout to Thomas, who put in one of his best performances of the season. He played smart and sound and looked comfortable. Alex Illikainen didn’t see the court at all, but Moesch played a solid couple of minutes in the first half, grabbing three offensive rebounds and playing classic Wisconsin bench-player basketball.
  • The Fighting Illini went to a zone look in the first half and the Badgers really struggled offensively against it. Hayes was on the bench with his second foul and they didn’t have anybody else who could play that high-post position on the free-throw line inside the zone. When Hayes came back in the game, he manipulated it on cue like in his puppet-master performance against Syracuse earlier in the season, but I’m definitely worried that the Badgers could be susceptible to a zone defense if Hayes is out.
  • Iverson put in a really good performance, and even though his two alley-oop dunks just missed, he knocked down two three-pointers. Iverson needs to string together a few great, all-around performances like this one because he will be a key player later in the season. Hopefully his developing offensive game solidifies some and his increased aggressiveness continues, because his defense and explosion are much needed. My one gripe in this game came when he didn’t contest the Kipper Nichols transition layup after his pass to Happ was stolen. Iverson should be able to either get in front with his hands up and force a tough layup, or maneuver himself for a chase-down block. Either way, I’m glad my favorite buddy cops Iverson and Thomas are back in business.
  • The Badgers owned the last 90 seconds of both halves, grabbing offensive rebounds and not giving up the ball after missed shots. Obviously the game wasn’t close at the end, but nonetheless, those offensive rebounds show the heart, toughness and desire this team possesses.