MADISON — A dismal first half compounded by poor free-throw and three-point shooting plus untimely turnovers led to the Wisconsin Badgers’ 59-52 loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Thursday night at the Kohl Center.
Despite scoring only 14 points in the first 20 minutes, Wisconsin (10-4, 2-1 Big Ten) pulled within a bucket with about two minutes left in regulation, only to see the wheels fall off with a stretch of three straight turnovers in the final 84 seconds.
“Obviously, we didn’t put the ball in the basket. Playing Captain Obvious there, but I liked the way the guys battled back after our first half of struggling mightily,” head coach Greg Gard said. “Defensively, I thought we did some good things. Had them numbers-wise where we needed to have them—20 points below their average, I think—but we got to be able to convert. Whether it was threes that were good looks, quick threes that were maybe too quick at times in the first half, I thought we were much better in the second half. Got to the free-throw line, but obviously we got to convert over in there and capitalize on those opportunities.”
Here are some takeaways from the rough home loss as UW now looks to get back on track during a Sunday road contest against Penn State.
Missed free throws at critical points
Connecting on only seven of 17 attempts (41.2 percent) from the free-throw line—all in the second half—hampered Wisconsin’s ability to make the game closer late. One could argue that if some of those are made, the Badgers are likely ahead at some point late in the contest, or some strategies change on Minnesota’s side that drastically change the outcome.
Happ hit only one of seven from the free-throw line, while senior forward Khalil Iverson made only one of four attempts.
Which leads me to my next point ...
Has the “Hack-a-Happ”-ening begun?
Happ can do so much and will go down as one of the best Badgers of all time in this program. His ability to change the game down low, have a silky-smooth spin move, and the ability to create baskets will showcase him as one of the most unique players to come out of UW.
That being said, Minnesota deployed the “Hack-a-Happ” strategy late in the game and it worked, as the big man missed four free throws in the final 2:41 of the game and six overall in the final 8:04.
When asked if there was any change in the way the team played after senior forward Jordan Murphy fouled out late in the contest, Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino said, “we just kept fouling Happ.”
“We talked about just sending guys at him, sending him to the free-throw line, and finding a way to get the rebound.”
Asked if it was as simple as him needing to connect on the free throws to prevent teams from utilizing that type of strategy, Happ was blunt.
“It’s that simple.”
Terrible first half
A nine-minute stretch where not a point was scored and Wisconsin shot 0-for-9 with four turnovers? In that first half, the Badgers shot 23.1 percent (6 of 26), connecting on only two of 14 from three-point range.
“A few times I didn’t finish around the rim obviously didn’t help, and then just that we were getting really good looks on the perimeter and they weren’t going down for our guys,” Happ said. “They were good looks, and we’re going to take them any game, so it was just frustrating that they weren’t falling for our guys.”
For as poorly they played in the first half, the Badgers surged back by shooting 63.6 percent in the final 20 minutes (14 of 22) to net 38 points. The team brought energy into the Kohl Center, nearly stealing a win after the disappointing performance early on.
Nate Reuvers emerged and will be needed during conference play
With redshirt sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice held to eight points on 3-of-10 shooting—just 2-of-7 from three-point range—and no one else stepping up in the scoring department, I thought the sophomore forward stepped up once again. He recorded 12 points, nine in the second half, along with five rebounds and two blocks.
Reuvers did not connect well from deep (just one of six from three-point range), but he provided some key baskets in tightening the gap against the Gophers. I believe Reuvers can bring the kind of presence both inside and out that can elevate him to another scoring threat to complement Happ and Trice, especially when one or both are faltering. Now it’s just about being more consistent.