Something about facing Illinois has been a cure-all for Wisconsin lately.
The Badgers (15-7, 6-3 Big Ten) bounced back from their lackluster second half at Ohio State with a strong close to the first half against Illinois (15-8, 2-7), using a much more aggressive mindset to fuel a 74-68 victory in Champaign, Ill.
Wisconsin came out determined to get to the basket from the outset. Though the approach resulted in far more missed "bunnies" than Bo Ryan would have liked, it did translate into a season-high 42 free throw attempts -- UW's most in a Big Ten tilt since 2002. The Badgers hit 28 of those freebies (66%) and enough down the stretch to successfully salt the game away.
With fouls and rough shooting rendering starters Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren, and Traevon Jackson ineffective, Ben Brust and Frank Kaminsky stepped up for Wisconsin without missing a beat.
Brust led the way in the first half with 13 of his game-high 20 points. The junior guard mixed drives in with 3-pointers and trips to the foul line, looking much different than the player who had averaged seven points-per-game and had not attempted a free throw since the Big Ten opener against Penn State on January 3. And he was efficient, knocking down 7-of-11 shots on the afternoon.
Likewise, Kaminsky appeared back at full strength after his eye injury, looking refreshed and eager to step in for foul-ridden Berggren.
Kaminsky regularly found himself in a mismatch with 6'1" Tracey Abrams guarding him on the block. Wisconsin was able to exploit the matchup, which often resulted in help defense fouling the big sophomore. Furthermore, his calm stroke at the free throw line seemed infectious. Kaminsky finished 12-of-14 from the charity stripe en route to a career-high 19 points.
Once again, Wisconsin dominated the rebounding battle against Illinois. Six Badgers pulled down at least five rebounds, posting a 38-26 advantage on the glass.
The Badgers also shot 17-for-35 (48.6%) for the game on two-point field goals thanks to the renewed aggressiveness.
Despite shooting only 35.5% in the first half, Wisconsin built a nine-point lead at the break because ice-cold Illinois shot a demoralizing 8-for-27 (29.6%) in the first 20 minutes. Brandon Paul, who did not start, was held without a field goal. His second straight bad outing against the Wisconsin defense ended in a 3-for-13 shooting performance.
The ominous start to the second half began when Brust missed two technical free throws which Wisconsin was awarded when Illinois head coach John Groce got T’d up heading into the locker room at halftime for berating an official. Soon after, Berggren picked up his third foul, while Illinois hit two quick jumpers to cut the lead to 33-28.
Yet the Brust and Kaminsky show picked right up where it left off. Two consecutive jumpers by the duo for five quick points to put Wisconsin back in control.
The lead grew as large as 15 points for UW before Joseph Bertrand started heating up for Illinois. Illinois' athletic junior wing scored 13 of his team's 17 points in one stretch, seemingly getting near the hoop at will. But it was a classic case of too little, too late, as the Illini could not get the defensive stops needed to really cut into the lead.
Five Illinois players, including Paul (10 points) and Bertrand (17), wound up in double figures as the Illini outscored the Badgers in the second half. But the final score was not indicative of how much Wisconsin dominated the contest and many of the buckets were scored on a lax Badger defense trying not to foul.
Another key for Wisconsin was its discretion behind the arc. The Badgers attempted only 14 treys (hitting only four), a welcome rarity this season for an increasingly perimeter-oriented offense. Meanwhile, Illinois needed the magic from long distance desperately, but only hit 2-of-13 (15.4%).
Ryan Evans added 15 points and nine rebounds for the Badgers.