WASHINGTON — If they didn’t flip a switch, they sure as hell flipped the script. The last meeting between Northwestern and Wisconsin, on Feb. 12 in Madison, saw the Wildcats stealing the Badgers’ act — toughness, hunger, hustle, horizontal dives, want-to — and rocking it better than the home team.
“We did kind of come out soft and we didn’t want that to happen again,” Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ said Saturday night after the Badgers blitzed the Wildcats, 76-48, at the Big Ten tourney to advance to Sunday’s league title game.
“And that’s something that was a point of emphasis, where they were beating guys to 50-50 balls, and a lot of those loose balls and stuff. So that’s something that we had to change if we were going to win and we did that.”
A month ago at the Kohl Center, the Wildcats matched the Badgers on second-chance points (eight each), trounced the hosts on points in the paint (26-12), and stunned the locals with a 66-59 win. Point guard Bronson Koenig was basically playing on one leg. Wisconsin looked sluggish.
The second Big Ten Tournament semifinal, though, was a different story, with Wisconsin (25-8) cleaning up on second-chance points, 15-7, and on points in the paint, 22-16, with the Wildcats (23-11) showing the wear and tear from a dogfight with third-seeded Maryland the evening prior.
“We never lost faith in what we were doing (or) lost hope,” said coach Greg Gard, whose Badgers are in the league championship tilt for the first time since 2015 and for the sixth time in 13 seasons. “It’s just a matter of, ‘Let’s do what we do better.’
“There weren’t any radical changes, anything outside the box. It was just, ‘Let’s get back to doing what we really do well. Let’s try to improve upon it.’ That was specifically on the defensive end. That’s where, I think, we’ve taken another step forward here in the last week or two.
“That’s helped us. We’ve been able to really be pretty effective and efficient defensively. It’s helped our offense because we’ve been able to do that. They’ve kind of played off one another. The defensive end is really where I think they turned the corner.”
Over their last three contests, the Badgers have surrendered just 52.3 points per game, bullied opponents into shooting 36 percent from the floor (59-for-164) and forced 12 turnovers per contest while committing only 8.6, on average, themselves.
In the three tilts prior to that, all losses, Bucky gave up an average of 76 points.
Welcome home, defense. Welcome home.
‘It’s the right time of year to be playing like this.’
— Wisconsin coach Greg Gard
“I think there’s a little bit more grit with the team now after going through that skid (last month),” Happ said of the Badgers, who dropped five of six between Feb. 12 and March 2.
“But I think the biggest thing is, like I said, (we’ve had) a bunch where we’ve had (games where) our offense was down for a while. And once we got our offense back, then our defense was kind of falling out. Now that we’re playing on both sides of the floor pretty well, it’s definitely all worked out.”
Happ (16 points, 8 rebounds) and frontcourt mates Nigel Hayes (18 points, 10 boards) and Vitto Brown (8 points, 8 rebounds) got low and got after it, rendering Wildcat wing standout Vic Law (4 points, 1 board) and enforcer Sanjay Lumpkin (1 point, 2 boards) irrelevant.
Hands came fast and furious. Driving lanes were quickly cut off. Loose balls weren’t an option. They were the only option.
“Part of it’s intensity,” Brown noted. “I think after we watched film, even that last game against Indiana — when we saw a few times where they were able to get those rebounds on us, we realized, ‘OK, we’ve got to check them out first and then go get it.’ And we did a good job of that.
“The effort was huge. And that’s really what it comes down to.”
In Bracketville, everybody wants it. The survivors want it more. The survivors will run through a forest fire in a gasoline suit to make it happen.
“It’s the right time of year,” Gard said, “to be playing like this.”
Bruising. Physical. Ticked off.
In Wichita, they call it angry.
In Madison, they call it business as usual.