MADISON, Wis. — Maybe it’s true momentum doesn’t exist in sports. Perhaps it is only an abstract concept that has no real bearing on the next play or the next series of plays.
Then again, there’s something to be said for an in-game shift so seismic that it rocks the foundation upon which both teams stand. And there was no doubt that something unusual took place on the court Sunday night at the Kohl Center to change the entire complexion of the game.
It occurred with 11:52 remaining in No. 4 Wisconsin’s 75-71 escape act of a victory against No. 22 Iowa. The Hawkeyes led 41-39 at the time when Iowa’s Gabriel Olaseni was whistled for an over-the-back foul of Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes.
That’s when Iowa coach Fran McCaffery inexplicably lost his composure and screamed at an official about the call near midcourt during a media timeout. McCaffery drew a technical foul and responded by bumping a referee, which resulted in his second technical and an ejection. He remained on the floor, where he was restrained by assistant coaches, then offered one final pep talk to his team in the huddle and finally left the floor for good.
Badgers guard Ben Brust buried all four free throw attempts following the two technicals to give Wisconsin a 43-41 edge — its first lead since 3-2 less than one minute into the game. It also proved to be the final lead exchange of the night in a game that was decided by four points.
"I can tell you that those were the four hardest free throws I’ve ever taken in my life," said Brust, who scored a team-best 19 points. "They all really didn’t feel that good, but they went in, which is all that counts. It definitely swung. We were down and then we got up. I remember gathering us up. I’m like, ‘OK, we’ve got the lead. Now we’ve got to try and keep it and build off that.’"
Afterward, McCaffery said he did not think the Big Ten would reprimand him, and he refused to acknowledge his behavior turned the tide of the game.
"You’re getting into an area where I’m not allowed to go," McCaffery said. "I would love to go there with you and kind of explain to you my perspective, but it’s not allowed. It’s not allowed by rule. And I know that’s what you guys want to talk about."
The second half offered a stunning reversal of fortunes for both teams, as Iowa (12-3, 1-1 Big Ten) hammered Wisconsin (15-0, 2-0) up and down the court in the opening frame. The Hawkeyes tallied more points in the paint, points off turnovers, second-chance points, fast-break points and bench points. They also recorded 11 offensive rebounds on 17 missed first-half shots.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, looked disorganized on offense. Badgers leading scorer Sam Dekker missed all six of his field-goal attempts in the first half, and Brust missed all three of his tries. Wisconsin also recorded more turnovers (six) than assists (four).
When Iowa polished off the first half with an Olaseni dunk, the Hawkeyes led 35-24, and the Badgers faced their first halftime deficit of the season.
But Wisconsin chipped away behind two Brust 3-pointers and crept within 41-39 on Brust’s jumper in the lane at the 13:16 mark. Less than 90 seconds later, McCaffery was out of the game after Iowa picked up its fifth foul in the span of 3 minutes, 40 seconds. In total, the game featured 55 fouls.
"I think at that point, we were not the same as we were in the first half," McCaffery said. "I think that’s safe to say, and you can talk about any number of reasons why that was the case. The momentum was shifting clearly for a variety of reasons. Some of which is under our control. Some of it’s not. So I thought if I’m going to get a T, typically there’s still 12, 13 minutes to go. There’s time for us to figure out where we’re going to play better, play tougher, play smarter than we were playing. I think we did that."
Badgers coach Bo Ryan said he thought his team was making a push even before the technical fouls and credited his players for battling through a close game early in Big Ten play. The victory helped Wisconsin match its best start to a season in program history — that last of which came 100 years ago.
"When things like that happen in a game, you just go to the line, you shoot your free throws, and you keep playing," Ryan said. "I’ve seen games like that go the other way. We’re making a comeback and then something happens where I’ve had a technical and then all of a sudden it changes back the other way.
"But it isn’t because of anything that we do as coaches in that circumstance. It’s still about the players and the possessions. I thought we made our move before that happened in a stretch where we got some opportunities and we cut into the lead like we did in the first half. Just because you cut into the lead or take the lead doesn’t mean you’re going to keep it."
One of the subplots to Sunday’s game was the return of former Wisconsin forward Jarrod Uthoff, who transferred to Iowa amid controversy after Ryan initially restricted his transfer options in April 2012.
Uthoff, who finished with six points in 16 minutes, was booed upon his announcement into the game off the bench during the first half. But his storyline proved to be an afterthought in a tightly contested game that turned on McCaffery’s technical — even if McCaffery himself did not agree.
"I’m sure coach McCaffery regrets that," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "Probably wasn’t the smartest thing in the world. It helped us out, so I’m not complaining."