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Left Defenseless: Badgers upset by Western Illinois in season opener

It didn't take long for the Badgers to get a wake-up call. Western Illinois came into Madison and out-played Wisconsin to come away with a shocking upset.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON -- Before their season opener against Western Illinois, the No. 17 Wisconsin Badgers hoisted a banner high to the Kohl Center rafters to commemorate last season's National Runner-Up.

It's going to take some work to get back there again.

Behind Garret Covington's tie-breaking free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining, the Leathernecks stunned the No. 17 Badgers at home on Friday night, 69-67.

JC Fuller led the way with 20 points and Covington added 16 for the Leathernecks, who surmounted a seven-point halftime deficit despite being picked to finish last in the Summit League after going 8-20 last season and coming into the contest only 14-42 on the road in the since 2011.

"It's upsetting knowing that we had control of the game and we let it slip away," Badgers forward Vitto Brown said.

After jumping out to a 44-37 halftime lead, the Badgers only posted 23 second-half points. That wouldn't be enough on this night.

Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig added 17 points apiece for the Badgers, who shot 25 percent (8-for-32) in the second half en route to dropping their first season opener since 2001.

Wisconsin came in on a 60-game win streak at the Kohl Center against teams from outside of the six major conferences.

It was the most unlikely of opponents--a 25-point underdog--that snapped it in what was the first road victory in head coach Billy Wright's 29-game tenure.

The Leathernecks led 64-58 with 7:56 remaining, then 67-62 with 2:39 left before a Koenig three-pointer and Vitto Brown layup tied the game at the two-minute mark.

Wisconsin would only get two more possessions the rest of the way as two fouls on defense gave the Leathernecks nearly a minute-long possession that ended in Covington's free throws. A Koenig elbow jumper fell short at the buzzer as the small contingent in purple celebrated the shocking upset.

Throughout the game, the Badgers struggled defensively. The most glaring weakness was agility and quickness with their feet on dribble drives to the basket by Leatherneck attackers.

"I think we just didn’t move our feet well enough," Koenig said. "That’s just something we’re going to have to keep working on."

The Leathernecks outscored the Badgers 30-20 in the paint, including a 16-6 second half advantage. Two of the biggest came on a Covington and-one at the rim with 2:26 remaining to go ahead 67-62.

It wasn't just coming at will from the paint, either. The Badgers were noticeably going under on ball screens and allowing the Leathernecks open looks from all around the perimeter.

UW Athletics may be receiving a request from their counterparts at Western Illinois for a shipment of the Kohl Center rims. The Leathernecks shot 61 percent in the first half and finished the game at 54 percent, including seven of nine from three-point range.

Like it was for the entire team, it was a tale of two halves for Hayes and Zak Showalter. At intermission, Hayes led the Badgers with 17 points--eight of them coming from the free throw line--followed by Showalter's eight. Over the final 20 minutes, the combo failed to score, going 0-for-10 from the field.

"Part of that was I had open jump shots, so that’s on me to knock them down and make them," Hayes said.

Without contributions from Hayes and Showalter, Koenig's number was called upon to carry the torch. Twelve of his 17 points came in the second half as he was 5-for-10 from the field.

At times stagnant, and consistently frustrating, Wisconsin's entire offensive performance can be summarized in a word: lackluster.

"I just thought offensively, we would be a little better and could handle not being very good defensively at this point," Badgers head coach Bo Ryan said. "When you shoot the percentage that we did, you don't get the chance to make up for that inefficiency."

The Badgers finished at a 35 percent shooting clip and endured a field goal drought of 7:56 in the second half as a 55-53 lead turned into a 64-56 deficit.

"Needless to say, thirty-something percent shooting didn't help us," Ryan said.

Brown and Koenig then vaulted the Badgers on an 11-3 run to tie the game, but they would fail to score after Brown's layup with two minutes remaining.

Another 11-3 run in the first half gave the Badgers a 40-33 lead in the first half after Western Illinois shot 69 percent to pull out to a 30-29 advantage with 6:35 remaining. Wisconsin finished strong, as a Koenig jumper with five seconds left put the Badgers up 44-37.

Despite the strong close out to the half, the Leathernecks went into intermission still shooting 61 percent from the field. Wisconsin was 14-of-30 for 47 percent, but made 11-of-15 free throws to account for the difference.

Wisconsin's seven-point halftime advantage didn't last long. Fuller, who was perfect from three-point range on four attempts, buried a triple to cap a 7-0 run to open the half. Happ, who finished with four points and six rebounds in his first career game, and Koenig scored on consecutive layups to put Wisconsin up 48-44.

Aided by poor free throw shooting from the Badgers, Western Illinois went on a 20-8 spurt to tie the biggest lead of the game at 64-56. Wisconsin missed five of eight free throw attempts in that stretch, which loomed large at the game's conclusion.

"If you just look at the free throw numbers, we did what we were trying to do, but when you get there, you've got to shoot in the 70s, at least," Ryan said. "And in a two-point game, how huge do those look?"

"They look pretty big."

Wisconsin was at its most successful on the offensive glass, bringing down 21 offensive rebounds. Overall, the Badgers won the rebound battle, 39 to 31.

Guard Khalil Iverson led the way, putting his athleticism on display with seven rebounds. That was just one part of his life-injecting 12 first-half minutes where he scored five points, grabbed four rebounds, had two steals and blocked a shot. He finished with those seven rebounds to go along with six points, three blocks and three steals.

Part of the reason Iverson logged such heavy minutes was the early foul trouble of Brown and Happ that caused them to sit for 11 minutes each in the first half.

When he was on the court in the first half, Brown struggled aside from draining his first career three-pointer. That carried over into the second half, as well, before the junior forward came to life in the final minutes. Three big rebounds, a steal, block and six points over in the game's five minutes from Brown allowed the Badgers to claw back.

It was Brown, though, whose foul on a box out with 32 seconds left extended the Leathernecks' final possession. Ryan requested the referees review the play to see if a shot clock violation occurred before the shot, but the men in black-and-white turned a deaf ear to that plea.

Iverson then fouled Covington with 10.2 seconds remaining as Western Illinois' leading scorer from a year ago calmly sunk both foul shots in front of the Wisconsin student section.

Koenig pushed the ball down the floor and pulled up for a contested jumper with three seconds left that barely grazed the front of the rim.

Western Illinois forward Tate Stensgaard grabbed the rebound as the sound of the buzzer resounded over a silenced Badgers crowd.

"We play again Sunday, we play again Tuesday, and we'll see what we can find," Ryan said.

A glance upwards at the Kohl Center scoreboard indicated the difference an off-season can make. Dangling from the Kohl Center rafters was the fresh memory of last season's magical run to the National Championship game. In the same site of view as that cloth placard, the scoreboard said it all:

Western Illinois 69, Wisconsin 67.