With a NCAA Tournament resume in need of a boost, Wisconsin basketball watched a key opportunity slip away in a 66-59 loss to Northwestern on Sunday night.
The loss at the Kohl Center snapped an eight-game win streak and 19-game home win streak for the Badgers.
Things started out fine for the Badgers as they jumped to a 14-6 lead, thanks to some cold shooting from Northwestern. Ethan Happ contributed half of the early Badgers points. Then the Wildcats took away Wisconsin’s favorite option by double-teaming Happ every time he touched the ball. While Happ is a gifted passer for a center — he leads the Badgers in assists in conference play– he struggled to find a way to exploit the defensive adjustment.
Northwestern (19-6, 8-4 Big Ten) went on a 16-0 run to take a 28-19 lead, and eventually entered halftime with a 31-22 lead. Wisconsin made just three field goals in the final 13 minutes of the first half. In the five minutes without Happ on the floor in the first half, Wisconsin was outscored by 12 points.
The Badgers (21-4, 10-2) opened the second half on a 10-0 run to take a 32-31 lead. Happ didn’t score a point during that span, but registered three assists. Northwestern responded with an 8-0 run and continued to maintain control for the rest of the second half.
Why Northwestern won
All the problems that had plagued Wisconsin in its most recent wins — an over-reliance on Happ, poor shooting, less of a rebounding advantage than usual — came to a head against the best team the Badgers have faced since losing 66-55 to Purdue. Doubling up on Happ was effective to the point that the center registered just two points in 11 second-half minutes. The Badgers finished 18-of-48 from the field, and Northwestern nearly tied the rebounding battle, 34-32.
Fault lines had already been forming in Wisconsin despite the win streak, it just took the Big Ten’s best defense by field-goal percentage to shake the Badgers for a loss.
Happ and co. gonna have to watch this tape a lot – rest of #Badgers opponents will try and do what Northwestern did to him today.
— John Veldhuis (@JohnVeldhuis) February 13, 2017
What it means
Northwestern got its second win at the Kohl Center in the building’s history and the tournament committee apparently is composed of geniuses. In Wisconsin’s first game since being shut out of a 4-seed or better by the committee in its early top 16 rankings, the Badgers again failed to notch a quality win. Instead, Northwestern will add the key win, bolstering its chances of the first NCAA Tournament berth in program history.
Wisconsin is 1-4 against teams in the RPI top 40, with Minnesota representing its sole win. The Badgers will at least remain in first place in the Big Ten for now, but they are just one game ahead of Purdue and Maryland, which both are 9-3 in league play.
Beyond Happ, Bronson Koenig was a nonfactor on both sides of the court, finishing with 2 points on 1-of-8 shooting and 0-for-5 from deep. He was overshadowed by backup D’Mitrik Trice, who put up 11 points in seven fewer minutes.
Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said after the game that a leg injury has been a factor in Koenig’s play, as he has last some of his speed off screens.
Play of the game
Ethan Happ is a man of many talents, leading the Badgers in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals in conference play, but the most notable tool missing from his bag is any semblance of a jump shot. That’s what made his 17-footer during the game’s early minutes a marvel of improbability.
Ethan Happ with the jumper.
Yes, you read that correctly: Ethan Happ with the jumper. https://t.co/JdWy0tnfap
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) February 12, 2017
Who was there
It was Alumni Night at the Kohl Center, with past Badger greats such as Ben Brust, Josh Gasser, and Rashard Griffith honored in a halftime ceremony. But the real show was earlier in the first half when Wisconsin football performed its annual dance with the cheerleaders, a tradition unmatched in its timelessness and grace.
Some of our Badgers showing off their dance moves? ?
Count us in. https://t.co/Sho2qavgbe
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) February 13, 2017
Who is next
The Badgers will hit the road on Thursday to visit Michigan (16-9, 6-6), against whom they came back to beat 68-64 earlier this season at the Kohl Center. Since that game, the Wolverines are 4-2 with losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. ET on ESPN.