MADISON, Wis. — Few games come along over the course of a lengthy college basketball regular season with the potential to define a team. Coaches will say every game counts the same, but the psychological impact of certain outcomes is more significant than others.
Maybe Wisconsin’s 74-70, double-overtime, heart-stopping victory against Iowa Wednesday night at the Kohl Center was just another win in a string of others. Or maybe it was something more.
Wisconsin has beaten Indiana in Assembly Hall this season, and that is the Badgers’ so-called signature victory, a sure-fire resume booster for the NCAA tournament. But Wednesday’s triumph certainly felt as though it was the most important.
A middling Iowa team had beaten Wisconsin on three consecutive occasions dating to last season — and the Badgers didn’t even hold a lead in the past two losses. So when Iowa pulled ahead, 51-42, with 6:18 remaining in the second half and the Kohl Center crowd filled with nervous energy, you started to wonder if Wisconsin would ever defeat Iowa again.
“It kind of looked a little bleak there,” Badgers forward Sam Dekker said.
Then, Wisconsin guard Ben Brust buried a 3-pointer and center Jared Berggren converted a three-point play. And the Badgers chipped away at the deficit, tying the game three times to send it to overtime. The last tie came at 58-58 courtesy of point guard Traevon Jackson, who stuck a 3-pointer off the dribble that tickled the front of the rim, bounced off the backboard and fell through the hoop with 20.5 seconds remaining.
“We just hung on and hung on and hung on some more,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “But to close that gap when we were down nine and to get it into the first overtime, that was really gutsy by our guys.”
In the overtime sessions, Wisconsin made only 1 of 9 shots and still found a way to win, which should say something about the Badgers’ defense and determination. Iowa made 4 of 16 shots in overtime and hit just 25 of 74 for the game (33.8 percent).
Wisconsin also converted on 13 of 14 free throw attempts during the extra periods to secure victory in its first double overtime game since Nov. 19, 2005, against Eastern Kentucky. The Badgers entered the night ranked No. 336 out of 347 Division I teams in free throw accuracy, making just 61.5 percent.
“When we were having some struggles at the line, I said it seemed contagious, where maybe one guy missed and then guys started thinking too much and putting pressure on themselves,” Berggren said. “It’s just kind of one of those things that you get things rolling a bit and then you realize they’re free throws — easy shots in basketball. They’re supposed to be automatic.”
Berggren in particular showed himself to be one of the premier centers in the Big Ten, and certainly one of the most underrated in the nation. He tallied his second career double-double with 16 points and 14 rebounds. He added a career-high-tying seven blocked shots, including a stuff just after Dekker hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:36 remaining in the second overtime.
Wisconsin improved to 16-7 overall and 7-3 in the Big Ten, tied for fourth place in the most difficult conference in college basketball. The Badgers have never finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten since Ryan began his tenure in 2001-02, and remarkably, they’re in position to continue that streak amid a slew of nationally ranked teams.
“We came together and we were talking about how we can do this,” Brust said. “A stop and a score. Then we were right there. From that point on, it was just a grind fest. Whoever could get to the loose balls. Whoever could make a play. We were able to come up on the left side, which was good.”
Given the difficult nature of the Big Ten, the last thing the Badgers needed was to lose to an Iowa team (14-9, 3-7) that won’t finish above .500 in conference play. Wisconsin has a home game against No. 3 Michigan looming Saturday morning, followed by a road game against No 18 Minnesota and a home game against No. 10 Ohio State.
If the Badgers shoot up the Big Ten standings in the final month of the regular season, they’ll have their game Wednesday night to thank for the boost — a potential season-changer if they play their cards right.
“We’ll see what it does for us,” Ryan said. “We only have Michigan coming in at 11 on Saturday.”