MADISON — In the first of two border battles in Madison this week, the Wisconsin Badgers dropped a tough game to the Iowa Hawkeyes, 59-57, Thursday night. This after UW led for the first 14 minutes and most of the final 10 before Jordan Bohannon knocked down a three-point stunner with 10 seconds remaining.
The game itself, a fairly slow-paced affair as the Badgers are wont to do, was one of back-and-forth runs, with both teams leading for long stretches and gaining and losing momentum at a moment’s notice. The Badgers lost their fifth game in six attempts, falling to 11-6 in the Big Ten and 22-8 overall. Stretches of nonexistent offense once again plagued the Badgers, who shot a measly 26 percent from the three-point line (6-of-23) while their defense returned to form, forcing 19 turnovers but committing 14 of their own in return.
“We gotta stop shooting ourselves in the foot first,” Nigel Hayes said. “We’re too spurty.”
Bronson Koenig led Wisconsin with 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting while Zak Showalter, Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ also scored in double-digits. However, the bench’s measly four points, compared to Iowa’s 24, and its 5-of-14 mark at the free-throw line was a microcosm of the season’s problems.
Happ (1-of-7), Hayes (2-of-4) and Showalter (1-of-2) each missed crucial free throws in the final minutes of the game. These late mistakes were accentuated by others made throughout the game, in addition to their inability to inbound the ball against the Hawkeyes’ full-court press at the end.
“After a couple timeouts we made better cuts and got the ball in,” coach Greg Gard said. “It’s not always the inbounder, but the cuts, in terms of coming to the ball, not away from it.”
With everybody contributing on the glass, Iowa out-rebounded Wisconsin 37-27 and was led offensively by Nicholas Baer’s 14 points and Bohannon’s quick trigger finger with 11 points, including the dagger that put the Badgers away in the end.
Four early turnovers from Happ and Hayes working in the lane weren’t taken advantage of by Iowa, which brought some three-quarters press in the first few minutes. Breaking it quite easily, Koenig knocked down three first-half three-pointers
Bohannon, who most Badgers fans should know from his family lineage in Madison, knocked down two deep threes in the first half to keep the Hawkeyes in the game.
Wisconsin went into the half down 32-25 as Iowa shot over 60 percent from the three-point line (7-of-11) with Baer leading with 12 points. The offensive outburst trailed off for the Badgers in the second 10 minutes of the half. Koenig led UW with 11 points and Happ followed with seven, but both teams were plagued by turnovers with Iowa and Wisconsin committing 10 and nine respectively due to errant passes, out-of-control play in transition and six steals apiece.
“We’ve gotta finish halves, that’s our issue right now,” Showalter said. “I think we’re coming out pretty strong, and our plus-minus early in halves is in our favor, but for some reason we’re not finishing. That’s kind of been what this team was so good at early in the season, those clutch minutes.”
Wisconsin’s early lead held for 14 minutes, but Iowa’s 14 bench points (12 from Baer) compared to zero for the Badgers allowed the Hawkeyes to gain the lead with 4:22 left in the half and then extend it before the final whistle blew.
Sluggishly starting their engines in the second half, Wisconsin got good looks from inside but Iowa registered back-side blocks on back-to-back possessions. Then a barrage of boos rang down from the crowd as the Badgers got called for their fourth foul on the same possession, fouls the crowd unanimously decided were questionable at best. Soon after, the offense found some traction with Trice plopping in a shot from the short corner and Hayes and Koenig both finished old-fashioned, three-point plays.
Iowa’s corn-fed defense brought the stiff double to Happ, who spun into the lane, rolled the layup off the rim, and then Showalter scrapped and fought for a tip-in among the jumping giants, sparking the tense crowd to erupt with excitement. Running off a missed Jok step-back, Trice threaded another perfect entry pass, this time to Hayes, who caught it spinning baseline and put in a shot off the board and drew a foul.
Hayes put the Badgers back ahead at 10:47 with a quick step left at the free-throw line, then a swift spin to the right for a tight floater in the lane. The Hawkeyes then brought a zone defense that stifled the Badgers’ lineups that lacked either Hayes or Happ for a couple minutes. The Wisconsin defense stepped up, grabbing multiple steals, including Jordan Hill jumping a pass way out on the perimeter and parlaying it into a wide-open dunk and the Badgers’ first fastbreak points for a 49-45 lead with 7:32 remaining.
Koenig’s late shot-clock heroics emerged after a short corner step-back dropped with the clock winding down. Both teams picked up the pace, offenses clicking, finding good shots but not always having them fall. Hill skied for a huge offensive rebound off a missed three from Koenig, and then Showalter knocked down a thunderous three of his own to finish the possession and extend Wisconsin’s lead to 54-45 with 4:15 to go.
“Jordan [Hill] was a great spark,” Showalter said. “That’s what we need off the bench, someone to come in and give us a spark like that. That’s encouraging to see going into tournament play here.”
Showalter continued his streak of relentless defense against the opposing team’s best player. Yet another game getting bruised and banged on the court put him on the receiving end of a stiff elbow from Peter Jok, which netted a foul against Showalter. Perturbed, Gard ventured out onto the court to plead his case, and an official review resulted in a Flagrant 1 foul against Jok and free throws for Showalter.
With Wisconsin leading by five with under two minutes left, Iowa’s full-court press forced two timeouts and two turnovers on three possessions, getting the Hawkeyes four easy points and cutting the Badgers’ lead to just 57-56. Then Happ’s trip to the free-throw line with 30 seconds remaining came up empty.
“It’s still a matter of what you do when the lights are on, when it really counts, when it’s on the scoreboard,” Gard said of Happ’s free-throw work in practice.
Gard’s post-game press conference
After the loss, Sunday’s game becomes even more important not only for the spirit of the team, but for Big Ten tournament seeding because the Badgers now find themselves tied for third with Maryland and Minnesota.
Odds and Ends:
- Showalter’s defense this season has been incredibly impressive. Even as Wisconsin struggled over the last couple games, giving up over 80 in back-to-back matchups, Showalter remained a lockdown defender. He won’t get any love for defensive player of the year, but he’s shown the ability and heart to shut down almost any guard or small forward in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.
- Amid Vitto Brown’s tumultuous tumble to the depths of Amber Alert territory, the Badgers’ bench hasn’t been able to step up and fill that void. Aside from Happ, the Badgers’ promising sophomore crop has underwhelmed and developmentally stagnated. Khalil Iverson, the only other bench stalwart with true freshman D’Mitrik Trice, played only four minutes.
- Brown played only 17 minutes, his fifth straight game below 20 minutes, and went 1-of-5 from the floor. Knocking down his first jumper wasn’t enough to spark his confidence, as his shooting slump continues late into the season. He ended the game once again on the bench with Hill and Trice playing in his stead.
- Both Alex Illikainen and Charles Thomas IV didn’t see the floor. With neither sophomore forward stepping up, Gard was forced to put Aaron Moesch in the game to play some fundamentally sound basketball in a two-minute relief stint.