MADISON, Wis. — Tired legs make for flat shots that carom off the rim just a tad more often. Fatigued minds make for late reactions diving for loose balls.
Rarely is it said that Wisconsin’s basketball team is outhustled on the court, but during the first half of Tuesday night’s 52-45 win over Minnesota, the Badgers simply didn’t have any juice left in the blender. They looked absolutely spent, scoring a season-low 16 first-half points just two days after a season-defining victory against a top-10 Ohio State team.
That Wisconsin overcame it all to knock off Minnesota in the Kohl Center might say more about the Badgers than even beating the Buckeyes did.
On a night when the Badgers played as poorly on offense as they had all season, they still found a way to win ugly. They never relented on defense despite going more than 14 minutes without making a field goal.
“At this point in the season, you’ve just got to come out ready to play,” said Badgers point guard Jordan Taylor, who led the way with 22 points. “We didn’t do a good job of throwing the first blow and coming out with a lot of energy. We did a good job in the second half of finding a way to turn it around.”
No. 14 Wisconsin (22-8, 11-6 Big Ten) is guaranteed to finish no worse than fourth in the conference for the 11th time in coach Bo Ryan’s 11 seasons. The Badgers also earned a bye in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
Those achievements certainly didn’t come easily. Taylor’s 3-pointer at the 12:34 mark of the first half, which gave Wisconsin an 11-8 lead, was the final field goal of the half for the Badgers, who missed their last 13 shots.
Ryan did everything he could from the sideline to boost his team’s energy, applauding loudly when guard Rob Wilson showed some aggressiveness despite being called for a blocking foul under the basket. The fans also implored the Badgers, cheering nervously when it appeared the game might be slipping away.
With 3:08 remaining in the half, Ryan even received a technical foul for arguing a call after the Badgers threw the ball away on an in-bounds pass. Afterward, he remained coy about whether the technical was a deliberate attempt to fire up the Badgers.
“They see me like that in practice maybe once in a while, depending on if I had a bad meal or not at lunch,” Ryan said. “If that’s what it takes, coaches would do that all the time.”
When Wisconsin went to the locker room trailing 23-16, the general feeling among the team was simply: “Hey, it can’t get any worse.”
“The first half, it was ugly,” forward Ryan Evans said. “Coach gave us a good speech at halftime. … Basically, (he said) don’t turn the ball over. That’s saying it in a nice way.”
The Badgers finally took the lead, 29-27, with 11:59 left on two free throws from Taylor, and they held off the Gophers with a typically staunch defensive effort. While Wisconsin made just 12 of 39 field goals (30.8 percent), Minnesota hit 11 of 46 (23.9 percent). That defensive performance allowed the Badgers to stage their biggest comeback of the season.
Minnesota became the 15th opponent that has scored its season low against Wisconsin, which continues to lead the nation in defense (51.8 ppg).
“The way we played, from my standpoint, we just couldn’t make a shot at all,” Gophers coach Tubby Smith said. “I don’t know why we can’t finish around the basket. … I thought the defense was outstanding on their part.”
Tuesday’s performance may have been ugly, but it wasn’t all that surprising considering Wisconsin was coming off its first Big Ten road victory against a top-10 team since 1980. So it was understandable that Wisconsin did not play its best against a Minnesota team (17-13, 5-12) that has lost six consecutive games. What matters most is that the Badgers clawed their way to victory on just one day of rest — a situation they’ll almost assuredly encounter again when the NCAA tournament arrives in two weeks.
“Everybody is grinding it out,” forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “Tournament time is right around the corner, so you’ve got to get excited for that.”