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Wisconsin survives Nebraska in OT thriller

Hopefully you stayed up for this one.

Thursday night’s heavyweight bout between the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers went into overtime in Lincoln on an unsung Husker’s shot, but the Badgers’ big three each made clutch plays in the extra five minutes to pull out an ugly 70-69 win.

This Big Ten battle was a nailbiter through the full 40 minutes of regulation. At first because it was some of the ugliest, most aesthetically cringeworthy basketball of the season through the first 39-and-a-half minutes, but the suspenseful final five-and-a-half had fans munching their cuticles along with the dramatic basketball poetry.

In a game that featured 47 total fouls and 48 free throws (24 for each team), the referees weren’t afraid of making their mark on the game, but the heart and talent on display down the stretch temporarily washed the whistling from my mind.

Nigel Hayes was the heartbeat of the Badgers’ offense in the second half and overtime, backing down to the post to alleviate Ethan Happ, who struggled against Nebraska’s constricting double-teams all night. Hayes ended with a game-high 20 points, including the go-ahead three-pointer in overtime. Happ just couldn’t find the hoop, but his 14 rebounds were integral to the Badgers’ success. It doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but Happ made plays on defense in overtime that won the game.

Koenig’s leg injury continues to handicap his game, but he ended with 12 points thanks to a timely drive and a clutch three-pointer in overtime. Zak Showalter played with four fouls for the final eight minutes of the game and was tasked with guarding Nebraska’s Tai Webster, one of those slashing guards who always seems to rip apart Wisconsin defenses, all night. No doubt exhausted from exerting his energy on defense, Showalter still managed to make four three-pointers and complete a four-point play in the process.

Brevin Pritzl once again closed out the game and played the entire overtime with Vitto Brown struggling and possibly still hampered from his lingering leg injury. Pritzl played solid basketball by filling up the stat sheet horizontally, notching offensive and defensive rebounds, an assist, a steal and four points. Playing over Jordan Hill, Pritzl appears to have solidified a role in the rotation moving forward.

The Badgers found their offense to start the game with Showalter and Brown knocking down early three-pointers, Happ and Hayes hitting early free throws and crashing the offensive boards. By picking up two fouls before the first media timeout, Hayes settled in for a long first half on the bench. Without Hayes and with Happ grabbing his first rest, the offense stagnated by not getting the ball to the post or driving to the rim.

Relying on the bench early, Gard went to Pritzl and Charles Thomas, who didn’t bring a spark to Wisconsin’s struggling offense, but luckily Nebraska was turning the ball over left and right with eight in the first 11 minutes.

The Badgers continued their run of great defensive play, possibly aided by the poor Cornhusker shooting. Missed shots riddled the first half, keeping Wisconsin from extending its lead and letting Nebraska stay in the game.

Happ’s regular moves proved ineffective in the first half as Nebraska brought immediate double-teams on the big man, forcing multiple turnovers by trapping him up against the baseline he so gingerly maneuvers along. Nebraska’s defense is long and lanky, and it set up shop in Wisconsin’s passing lanes. The Cornhuskers forced turnovers and started hitting buckets to draw themselves back into the game.

As Happ came out for a help-side block, Nebraska dropped a pass to Ed Morrow right under Happ’s nose, dropping in a reverse layup to end a sloppy, ugly, cringeworthy Big Ten first half with the Badgers up 25-24.

After a great start, the Badgers scored just 11 points in the remaining 14-and-a-half minutes to close a half in which they committed seven turnovers, including two travels in the last two minutes, were outrebounded by seven, had foul players commit two fouls and were led in the scoring department by Brown with seven.

Neither team played enjoyable basketball, but Nebraska’s defense bothered Wisconsin enough to let the Cornhuskers back into the game. Hayes’s absence with fouls and Happ’s struggles led Wisconsin to shoot a horrific 31 percent in the first half.

Since the Badgers’ offense needed a kick in its pants to start the second half, they went to their go-to guys: Hayes and Happ. They both put in buckets from their home turf on the block. When a Hayes shot near the rim bounced out, Happ fought an offensive rebound away from Glynn Watson Jr. with some nifty dribbling skills. The subsequent inbounds play got Koenig, the inbounder, a great look at a three-pointer that he knocked down.

Hayes made up for the lost time by attacking the Cornhuskers in the post and earning trips to the stripe. He lurked on the backside, shuffled down the baseline and Iverson found him for a beautiful dunk too. Nebraska’s Isaiah Roby gave them a huge spark off the bench for a baseline slam of his own and a get-outta-here block on Thomas.

As the winds blew here in Madison, so did the whistles in Lincoln against both teams, putting the Badgers in the bonus with over 11 minutes to go. The Cornhuskers joined them soon after.

Despite Koenig’s hand trailing close behind, Webster knocked down a big three coming around the arc to keep Nebraska within a possession or two. Meanwhile, Pritzl, after an underwhelming first-half performance, showed up in the second half in the form of hustle plays and smart basketball.

Nebraska just kept throwing punches and finally landed one by capitalizing on more Wisconsin turnovers to finally grab the lead with just over five minutes to go. Smothered defensively, Wisconsin was unable to get good shots as Nebraska scrambled and trapped and flailed its arms, disrupting any Badger flow... but bailing the Badgers out with fouls.

Out of a timeout, the Badgers regained their composure and dialed up Koenig for a drive to the bucket from the left wing for a layup. Hayes subsequently drew the double-team in the post and found Trice in the weak-side corner, who rotated it to Showalter on the wing for a three. Forcing a turnover on a Nebraska drive, Koenig lollygagged up the court and picked up a rare 10-second backcourt violation, an inexcusable mental mistake from the decorated senior.

Calling a timeout with a one-point lead, Wisconsin drew up a final play that resulted in Hayes bouncing in a spinning shot in the post, but Nebraska answered with Michael Jacobson hitting a three-pointer to tie the game with 0.3 seconds left.

The Badgers stuck with their crunch time lineup of Showalter, Koenig, Pritzl, Hayes and Happ. The Cornhusker offense that matched the Badgers’ offensive anemia punch-for-punch in the first 40 came out hitting clutch shots and attacking. Webster remained a load, as slashing point guards usually are for the Badgers, driving into the lane for a floater.

Showalter answered with a corner three-pointer and Watson threw the Badgers a bone by fouling him for a four-point play. Jacobson hit a second miracle jumper on the night, and a gimpy Koenig replied with a resounding three-pointer that banked in from the top of the key.

Down two points with 26 seconds remaining, Hayes, the Big Ten preseason player of the year, swooshed in a three-pointer to give Wisconsin a 70-69 lead.

The Badgers’ defense just had to hold for one possession. With Nebraska trusting go-to guy, Webster drove into the lane and discovered Pinnacle Bank Arena had become a sett. Four Badgers swarmed him and Happ not only blocked Webster’s left-handed layup, he possessed the block and called timeout with 3.3 seconds remaining.

Hayes was fouled on the inbounds play, and after missing both free throws, Jacobson looked upcourt after the rebound, but much to Nebraska’s dismay, there was Happ skulking behind Jacobson to knock the ball away with his rangy limbs.

The No. 7 Badgers improved to 21-3 and 10-1 in conference by winning their eighth straight game.

Odds and Ends:

  • This was one of the most unpleasant games I’ve watched all season, and some credit belongs to Nebraska, which shut down Wisconsin’s offense better than any other team has this season. They were Belichickian in their defensive game plan by eliminating the Badgers’ go-to target, Happ, all night. The Badgers just couldn’t adjust, and the lack of Hayes in the first half hindered any chance of altering the offensive attack.
  • The Badgers shot 36.5 percent on the night, 36.4 percent from three and 66.7 percent from the free-throw line. It’s good to see the volume up at the stripe, but the zebras are partially to blame for that bloviated stat. A top-heavy team like this is struggling through the dog days of the Big Ten season and nursing multiple injuries to its best players. The discussion early in the season was about how Wisconsin’s best players aren’t playing over 30 minutes a game, but that’s no longer the case. It’s a battle of attrition from here on out. The Badgers can keep grinding out wins against lower-tier Big Ten teams, but the offense needs to pick it up if they want to beat upper-echelon teams or make a run.

I was prepared to write, “I don’t want to think about this game again”, if this game would’ve ended in regulation, but that overtime incredibly saved this game. The Badgers are a veteran-laden team with a lot of talented players and enough grit to to grind out wins. This team is really good—sometimes I forget that.