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Big Ten tournament 2017: Wisconsin throttles Northwestern, advances to final

Just in time, the Badgers are heating up.

After sputtering down the stretch of the regular season, the Wisconsin Badgers have returned to form and seem to be hitting new highs over their past three games.

Saturday afternoon, the Badgers completely dominated the Northwestern Wildcats 76-48 in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C.

Holding the lead for almost 38 minutes, the Badgers started strong and other than a short, early burst from Northwestern, kept their foot on the pedal and never relinquished their lead. Wisconsin held a Northwestern team averaging 72 points per game to a season-low by holding leading scorer Bryant McIntosh to just eight.

It was a team effort on defense, but Zak Showalter locked McIntosh down all game, forced him to take tough shots with a persistent hand in his face and allowed the Big Ten’s assist leader to only dish one dime all day. Ethan Happ was the usual stalwart inside, especially with Dererk Pardon not even trying against him. Nigel Hayes put in another quiet, shutdown defensive performance against Northwestern’s Scottie Lindsey, who averaged over 15 points in the first two games of the tournament and scored 16, the only Wildcat in double figures.

Offensively, it was a slow cascade of efficiency for the Badgers, who shot 47 percent from the field on 27-of-57 shooting and 41 percent from three. Hayes put up his sixth double-double of the season with a game-high 18 points and 10 rebounds on just 11 shots. Hayes, just like he did to start the game against Indiana, came out aggressive and calculated. He worked the block and baseline masterfully, knocked down a couple of mid-range jumpers and put in both of his three-point attempts.

Happ scored 13 of his 16 points in a seven-minute stretch from the final four minutes of the first half through the first three of the second half. Conquering his much-discussed Achilles heel and progressing back to the mean, Happ hit eight of 11 free throws.

Early on, Northwestern brought double teams often, a tactic it adopted and perfected in the first matchup, prompting every other team to do the same. Saturday, Happ did a much better job of finding the open man on the perimeter. This strategy forced the Badgers into firing early and often from the three-point line, and luckily a few of them dropped to get the lead.

Bronson Koenig took advantage of those kick-outs and his usual off-the-dribble pull-up jumpers from behind the arc for an inefficient eight points on 2-of-9 shooting from three, but he hit early and stretched and worked the defense like he usually does. Showalter was the more prominent benefactor, hitting two crucial threes to spark a Wisconsin run and a Northwestern drought. His 10 points, two assists and two steals were a lightning rod for the Badgers’ beatdown from beginning to end.

Vitto Brown played one of his best games in recent and distant memory. He hit two second-half three-pointers, scored eight points and grabbed eight rebounds (four offensive). He was engaged and fighting all game, including extending two Wisconsin possessions by slinking his lengthy arms into a tight space to bat the loose ball to a teammate.

The difference in the game was the Badgers’ desire and hustle throughout, winning what seemed like every loose or 50/50 ball and saving balls from going out of bounds. A full 40 minutes of fundamental and exciting basketball from a team that just a week ago appeared to be spiraling into despair and an early tournament exit.

The Badgers shot out to an early lead with Hayes being aggressive in the paint and working the baseline from the block. They came out shooting from deep with Koenig knocking down a contested pull-up and Happ adjusting to Northwestern’s sneaky double-teams by doing a much-improved job of kicking out to open shooters for good looks.

The improved Wisconsin defense didn’t allow anything easy for Northwestern, which didn’t score for the first five minutes of the game but then they went on a 9-1 run to cut the Badgers’ lead down. Showalter ended Wisconsin’s own offensive drought with a couple of three-pointers.

The real story of the first half was the Badgers’ suffocating defense that forced Northwestern into shooting a putrid 25 percent from the field on a diet of runners and floaters. Wisconsin forced low-quality shots, hustled all over the floor and locked down any and all loose balls.

An early three-point barrage from Wisconsin transitioned into an in-the-paint offense for the final five minutes. Happ scored most of his points in this stretch.

Wisconsin went into halftime with a 38-21 lead thanks to dominant defense and a solid and varied offensive contribution. Hayes, Happ, Koenig and Showalter were the only Badgers to score in the first half, but Brown’s five first-half rebounds and relentless hustle were an unheralded factor.

Happ hit five straight free throws to go 6-of-9 in the first half and was instrumental in getting Wisconsin 12 second-chance points that were vital in driving up the lead, but Northwestern’s offense was doing itself no favors. The Wildcats tallied only one assist en route to their season-low in first-half scoring, compared to the Badgers’ seven assists.

The opening possessions of the second half were a microcosm of the game up to that point. Northwestern’s Sanjay Lumpkin forced up an early three-pointer that missed badly and Wisconsin answered with an open three-pointer clanging off the rim from Koenig, but Happ grabbed an offensive rebound and kicked to Hayes, who got a soft bounce from the rim on his three-pointer.

Sticking with the simplistic swing offense the Badgers are known for, Alex Illikainen set a basic down screen, slipped to the rim wide-open and D’Mitrik Trice found him for the wide-open layup. A couple Wisconsin turnovers and a Wisconsin-wide exhale after McIntosh missed a transition three set Brown into gear to make up for his sloppy pass. He knocked down a straight-away three-pointer with the defender giving him a little breathing room, swatted away an open layup on the other end in a help situation and then snagged an offensive rebound in the lane.

The next stretch was some pure Badger basketball. Showalter created the best shot possible after fighting for 30 seconds by splitting two defenders from the perimeter for a floater, and then the Big Ten first-team All-Defense appointee had a hand right in McIntosh’s face, forcing him to miss another three. Trice and Brown hit back-to-back threes, but then Showalter jumped out and stole another pass, overhead bounce-passed it to Trice, who pump-faked twice in the lane and got it to Happ for an easy layup, giving the Badgers a 61-35 lead with 8:30 remaining.

The remaining minutes were your usual back-and-forth while the Badgers rested their best players but continued to play fundamentally strong basketball. The bench didn’t play an incredible game by any measure, but it provided strong, quality minutes and didn’t make mistakes. Trice showed that he’s returning to his non-conference form, rediscovering his offensive confidence and range. Meanwhile, Jordan Hill fired away in the final few minutes from the wing for 11 points.

The Badgers will play the Michigan Wolverines on Sunday at 2 p.m. CST on CBS in the Big Ten tournament championship game.

Odds and Ends:

  • Happ’s intensity early on when he wasn’t contributing on the scoreboard was obvious: snagging rebounds left and right, setting screens that sprung Koenig, Showalter and Trice for open three-pointers, navigating the muddy double-teams and noticeably boxing out on every possession.
  • Hayes has struggled at times this season, that’s no secret, but his patience on the offensive end is a thing of beauty. When he gets isolated out on the wing and faces up, he uses that jab step to mess with the defender psychologically and work himself into the shot he wants. Also, when he’s on the block, he uses his body to read the entire defense behind him to map his path to the rim, often spinning baseline and putting in a spinning, reverse layup or else using his size to body up and enforce his will upon the meager defender.
  • In the Badgers’ recent resurgence, the latest wrinkle in the offense is the downhill attack. Wisconsin isn’t known for slashing guards, but lately Koenig, Trice and Showalter have been smartly picking and choosing their times to attack off the dribble and get to the rim. Whether that’s from the wing and down the lane or today when Showalter drove from the wing to the baseline to capitalize at the rim as Happ simultaneously sealed his defender off and screened Showalter’s man, the Badgers’ offense is clicking on all cylinders and defenses have no idea how they’ll attack.
  • The bench played some improved basketball. Specifically, Illikainen had a solid game when giving Happ a rest. He played smart basketball, didn’t try to do too much on offense, grabbed rebounds and hustled for loose balls. On one defensive possession, Pardon really bodied him up hard and put his weight into him, but Illikainen stood his ground, held position and Pardon missed the turnaround jumper at the block. It’s a great sign for the Badgers moving forward.