No. 17 Wisconsin stunned at home in improbable loss to Western Illinois
MADISON, Wis. — The defensive rebound landed in a teammate's hands as time expired, allowing Garret Covington and his Western Illinois buddies to start celebrating as if they had just won an NCAA Tournament game.
The Leathernecks are going to remember their season opener for quite some time.
Covington hit two fouls shots with 10.2 seconds left, and Western Illinois shocked No. 17 Wisconsin with a 69-67 win on Friday night.
"We talked as a team, as a program, it's not who you play, it's how you play," coach Billy Wright said. "And I thought our kids, our young men, did a very good job of maintaining their composure."
J.C. Fuller scored 20 points and Covington added 16 as a team picked to finish last in the Summit League upset a Big Ten power coming off back-to-back Final Four appearances.
The Leathernecks led by as many as eight midway through the second half before Wisconsin mounted a furious rally to tie it at 67 with 2 minutes left on Vitto Brown's layup.
That set up Covington's two clutch foul shots. Wisconsin's Bronson Koenig missed a mid-range jumper with 3 seconds left in the opener for each school.
Covington and his giddy teammates posed for a celebratory picture in the locker room that the junior guard posted on Twitter. Their coach was happy but much more subdued.
"We just talked about poise. That was another point of emphasis going into a hostile environment," Wright said. "Obviously I'm thrilled for our program."
The Leathernecks shot 54 percent against a team known historically for strong defensive play. But the Badgers were porous on Friday night.
Western Illinois shot 7 of 9 from 3-point range and consistently got to the lane off the dribble.
"The way we rotated, the way we didn't pinch," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said in lamenting the team's defensive breakdowns.
Koenig and Nigel Hayes each had 17 points for Wisconsin. They are two holdover starters from last year's Final Four squad.
Ryan's team will need to shore up play on both ends of the floor.
Wisconsin shot 35 percent for the night and just 25 percent in the second half. The Badgers looked lethargic at times until Brown gave them a spark late in the game.
"It's not a surprise to me," Ryan said. "I just thought offensively we could be a little better and we could handle not being good defensively at this point."
Koenig said the Badgers didn't move their feet well enough collectively on defense. Hayes said he could see that the Badgers might struggle defensively in practice.
"Primarily our defense with our bigs, we knew that was something we needed to work on," said the 6-foot-8 Hayes.
The Badgers' tallest starter is 6-9 freshman Ethan Happ, who finished with four points in 19 minutes.
According to the Summit League, Western Illinois' victory marked just the fifth road win for a conference team over a nationally ranked school, and the first against a Big Ten opponent.
Hayes went scoreless in the second half, missing all five shots from the field during the period.
"We spied on him a little bit more, very little full-out double teams," Wright said. "I think it was more walling up, making him shoot over us."
TO THE HOOP
Western Illinois got a combined 48 points from its three starting guards, a position that Wright said he thought would be a strength this year.
"We thought that if we can get to the paint, we'd have some success," he said. "It was about making the right basketball decisions."
Western Illinois: The Leathernecks were 1-26 on the road in the previous two seasons. ... Assistant coach Mark Vershaw played on the Wisconsin team that advanced to the 2000 Final Four.
Wisconsin: The Badgers returned just 38 percent of the minutes played from last season. ... Freshman Khalil Iverson showed hustle in his collegiate debut in the first half and finished with six points and seven rebounds. He was 1 of 6 from the field.
Western Illinois hosts Hannibal-LaGrange in its home opener on Sunday.
Wisconsin hosts Siena on Sunday.