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Senior Day a success as Wisconsin defeats Minnesota

Onto the postseason.

MADISON — The Wisconsin Badgers’ regular-season finale against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Sunday showed the mettle of their basketball program and impressive senior class on Senior Day.

Emerging from their late-season swoon, the Badgers enjoyed a dominant, complete, 66-49 victory at the Kohl Center. Wisconsin ends the season with a 23-8 record (12-6 in Big Ten play) to clinch the No. 2 seed and byes in the first two rounds of the Big Ten tournament this coming weekend.

Shooting 44 percent from the field and 55 percent from three-point range helped Wisconsin’s offense, but the Badgers’ defense was the story. UW held a Minnesota team averaging 76.5 points per game to just 49 points total and 20 in the second half.

Bronson Koenig’s team-high 17 points, all in the second half, allowed Wisconsin to pull away from a tough Minnesota team that came in having won eight games in a row. Koenig’s back-to-back-to-back three-pointers in the second half lifted the Badgers and the crowd to new heights, exploiting Minnesota’s defensive mistakes against the one player ready to explode at any moment.

Despite a 1-of-5 mark from the free-throw line, Nigel Hayes supplied 12 points on 50 percent shooting and six rebounds in his 33 minutes. Zak Showalter did his best to corral Minnesota’s Nate Mason on defense while providing his own dozen points and five rebounds by attacking off the dribble on creative routes to the rim.

Vitto Brown played a much-improved game after struggling mightily during Wisconsin’s recent downturn, supplying some crowd fodder with a smooth, first-half three and a deafening dunk in the second. Brown also played some impressive defensive possessions down the stretch, forcing a crucial steal and maintaining hands-straight-up defensive positioning as Minnesota slashed into the lane.

After a mild offensive start for both teams, the Kohl Center went ice-cold. The Badgers went 2-of-14 from the field over a stretch of about eight minutes, and the Gophers couldn’t take advantage. Minnesota committed eight first-half turnovers, many of them forced by the feisty, active defensive hands of Wisconsin swatting and scraping the ball away.

The expected offensive onslaught came from both teams over the last six minutes, when the Badgers more than doubled their score. With Koenig exiled to the bench with two fouls, D’Mitrik Trice took up the helm and ran a successful two-man game with Ethan Happ, utilizing pick-and-rolls to get Happ easier looks away from the double-teams Minnesota was sending his way.

“He came in and captained the ship,” coach Greg Gard said of Trice. “I was able to do that because I trust him completely.”

For the Gophers, their slashing wings and guards attacked the Badgers’ defense off the dribble, drew the inside defender and found the open big man awaiting the pass on the opposite block for easy, uncontested lay-ins. Mason’s 11 first-half points outpaced everyone.

Koenig made his presence felt immediately in the second half, hitting a three on Wisconsin’s second possession. On a baseline inbounds, Koenig found Happ, who posted up and spun into the lane, drawing Koenig’s defender in for the double. With a lightning-quick reaction, Happ kicked directly out to Koenig in the corner before he knocked down a three thanks to the open space.

Since Wisconsin doesn’t have a baseball team, the Badgers figured it was time to put the long ball into action. Hayes got a pass from Happ at the top of the key, and he stepped right into a smooth three pointer at the 15:20 mark. Then Hayes found Showalter at the same spot for another three at the 14-minute mark, pushing the Badgers’ lead to seven points, sparking a thunderous crowd reaction and forcing a Richard Pitino timeout to spell the Badgers run.

Unfortunately for Pitino, the timeout didn’t work as the Badgers continued on an 18-2 run over five-and-a-half minutes for a 48-35 point lead with 11:30 remaining. Great defensive possessions where Brown and Happ guarded the rim with aplomb as Gopher guards drove into their grill were parlayed into highlight plays on offense.

Minnesota climbed back to within six after an Amir Coffey three-pointer with 6:20 remaining, but Wisconsin’s defense was clearly wearing on them. Their slash-and-kick offense’s declining potency becoming clear as Mason seemed the only player capable of scoring consistently.

Hayes brought the lead back to double-digits with an inside spin and a bank shot, drawing a foul in the process, and then Koenig went nuclear.

The senior used Hayes as the screener at the top of the key, Murphy went under both times, and Koenig made him pay by knocking down two threes on back-to-back possessions. He wasn’t done. Koenig pulled up for his third straight three-pointer, extending the lead to 64-49 with one minute remaining.

Koenig then knocked down two free throws with 30 seconds remaining and Gard sent in the subs, granting his four seniors one last curtain call and a much-deserved standing ovation after playing a devastatingly complete game from start to finish in the 17-point win.

“Guess that’s what I do, just close games,” Koenig said.

Odds and Ends:

  • Wisconsin’s four seniors end their careers with 111 combined victories, tying them for second-most all-time over a four-year span in UW history.
  • Koenig will emerge the hero and face of this victory, but while he was sidelined in the first half, Trice choreographed the offense and kept Wisconsin afloat. With him on the court, the offense struggled for a stretch, but the game plan switched between Trice/Happ pick-and-roll and the usual swing offense UW runs to keep the Gophers on their toes and get the Badgers different looks from all over the court.
  • Although for just a short stint, Khalil Iverson’s output (three points and four rebounds in nine minutes) was energizing and much-needed. Like Jordan Hill on Thursday night, the Badgers will need one or two bench players moving forward to consistently step up productivity-wise.
  • Showalter had a back cut off the weak-side screening action of the swing offense just like Trice’s late in the game. The simplicity of the swing and the manipulation of its conventions once it’s mastered can come from a true freshman or a redshirt senior. Those types of wrinkles are the best ways to reignite a struggling offense, especially when Happ is crippled by oncoming double teams or when shots aren’t falling.
  • Happ’s nine points and 13 rebounds (five offensive) were big, as the center felt determined to keep attacking the Gophers’ impending double-teams—a tactic that got him in trouble at times but also got him easy buckets when he leveraged himself correctly. Happ should’ve had more points, but he missed some close buckets at the rim that have been falling all season. He’s still a force to be reckoned with.