The Wisconsin Badgers had a strong 64-52 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes, aided by a late second-half 10-2 surge that pushed them ahead for good, providing them with their first win over five points since December 30th.
A big reason for the win? Forward Tyler Wahl, who posted 11 points and 14 rebounds on 5/8 shooting, setting the tone for the Badgers with his aggressiveness and physicality on both ends, which was much needed as Steven Crowl played just 13 minutes due to foul trouble.
Defensively, Wahl drew the toughest matchup, pairing up against star forward Kris Murray, who was limited to just five points on 2/10 shooting, with the Badgers forward playing a huge role.
Crowl gave Wahl some deserved praise postgame, sharing that the Badgers got their preferred matchup defensively, and ultimately won that battle with the defense on Murray.
“I think Tyler did a great job on [Kris Murray]. We wanted to keep Tyler on him for as much as the game as we could. Yeah, I think Tyler did a great job being physical with him. We all know he’s a pretty good shooter,” Crowl said. “He missed some wide-open ones that we thought he was a little too wide open. But all in all, I think Tyler did a great job and some of those other guys that were guarding him.”
Wahl’s performance on Wednesday was the first glimpse of his return to his former self before the ankle injury that cost him several games, as he showcased both the aggressiveness and explosiveness that made him such a threat early in the season.
It was notable to his teammates, as Crowl acknowledged how Wahl was battling back to full strength, and appeared his best against the Hawkeyes.
“Yeah, no, [Tyler] was great today. As you can all see, his ankle starting to get fully healthy back to what we saw earlier this season. And like you said, 14 rebounds is a lot. He did most of the load for us on the boards and has two offensive rebounds there, too. It wasn’t just the defensive boards, but I think, down low, his ability to pass and find the open teammates. And like I said earlier, we’re starting to see the whole team that we saw earlier this season.”
Wahl did struggle a little early, giving up some offensive rebounds, but it started to click after the forward began executing the little things, boxing out his opponents with physicality, which reciprocated on the other end.
“With Steve out, I got to play a little five, be the big man for a little bit, which was fun, but it was good. The ball was bouncing my way on the defensive end. I was doing a good job, I think hitting guys, boxing them out after I gave up a couple of boards, and from there, I really just switched, and things were going my way.”
Head coach Greg Gard agreed with the sentiment, believing that Wahl’s energy on the defensive end fueled his aggressiveness, allowing him to perform at a high level on Wednesday.
“Yeah, I think Tyler got his mojo going from how hard he played and the rebounds he was able to get his hands on,” Gard said. “Those things, I think, fueled what he did offensively. And when you chase scoring and you’re always trying to be motivated or focused on that, you’ll never catch it. But, as I told him before the game, just go play hard. Just let the chips fall. He was standing next to me in the national anthem line, and I said, man, just play hard. Let the chips fall where they may. And that’s when you play hard, good things happen.
While Gard acknowledged some of the early miscues, as he usually does in his frank responses, the head coach praised his forward on the defensive performance he put together on Kris Murray, which was key for the Badgers on that end.
“Things fall on your lap, so to speak. And he did that. He played exceptionally hard and had a tougher assignment tonight with Murray. Lost him a couple of times, but, you know, he just kept battling back.”
Gard also had a tough decision on his hands: taking out his forward to let him reset at the media timeout halfway through the second half.
However, instead of giving Wahl a short leash, Gard saw some good things with Wahl’s aggressiveness on a layup right before the timeout, which enforced the decision to remain with his forward, and it paid dividends down the stretch.
“I think he got a bucket there and kind of in the post right when I was going to take him out, he scored, I think, right before the media timeout. So, you know, every player is different in how they respond. Sometimes, you let players play through the mistakes,” Gard said. “Sometimes, they need a little time out and sit down and recollect and refocus, and sometimes from game to game, it’s a little different. But, I thought how he responded in terms of going right back down and finishing the post off the glass, I think he did that time. That was a good sign that he wasn’t letting what happened prior carry over and he got to move on to [the next opportunity].”
This performance was much-needed from Wahl, as it marked the second time since his injury that he shot over 50% from the field, as well as the second time over the past eight games that he scored in double-digit figures.
Over the past week, I’ve stressed the importance for Wahl to get going, especially in opportunities to drive downhill rather than posting up, which was exactly what happened on Wednesday and a key part of his aggressiveness.
If the Badgers want to remain consistent, they need to keep playing through Wahl, who has been a willing passer, while showcasing his aggressive habits on both sides of the court.