MADISON, Wis. — For nearly 28 minutes on Sunday night, Illinois kept hitting tough shots and Wisconsin kept missing them from all over the floor.
It added up to 13-point deficit with about 12 minutes to go, the type of adversity that might have tripped up the Badgers a few months ago.
But things have changed at Wisconsin.
Ethan Happ had 20 points and 12 rebounds, and helped spark a 17-0 run that allowed Wisconsin to roar back from its double-digit deficit in the second half of a 69-60 win on Sunday night over Illinois.
"It wasn’t exactly pretty," interim coach Greg Gard said, "but that resolve, that fight, that grit . . . shows that they’re maturing."
Happ, an athletic 6-foot-9 freshman, had three steals during the decisive run for the Badgers (17-10, 9-5 Big Ten), who avoided a potentially damaging loss to their NCAA tournament resume. The Badgers lost to lowly Western Illinois and Milwaukee at home in nonconference play. They also have victories over ranked conference opponents Michigan State, Maryland and Indiana.
Now they can also take heart with the team’s best comeback win since overcoming a 15-point deficit in the second half at home to unbeaten and No. 1 Ohio State on Feb. 12, 2011.
Nigel Hayes scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half after being held without a field goal in the first half. The Badgers go-to forward bounced back after shooting 1 of 13 for five points in a 69-57 loss last week to No. 8 Michigan State.
There was a "little bit of a hangover" from the Spartans game, said Bronson Koenig, who finished with 14 points.
"It happens to everyone . . . I’m glad we’re resilient and matured a little bit tonight," he added.
Malcolm Hill scored 20 points and Kendrick Nunn added 15 for Illinois (12-15, 4-10). The high-scoring duo hit all the tough shots until the Illini became unglued in the second half.
Illinois went more than seven minutes of the half without a field goal, and coach John Groce appeared unhappy at times with the officials with a foul disparity favoring Wisconsin.
The Illini were whistled for 19 fouls in the second half to seven for Wisconsin.
"Fouling is a mistake. We don’t want to do that. We take a lot of pride in defending without fouling," Groce said.
Happ, Hayes and guard Koenig seized on almost every opportunity during the second half run, a stark contrast to the first half for the team. The Badgers shot 8 of 28 from the field and 1 of 13 from the 3-point arc before halftime, and the slump stretched early into the second half.
Trailing 46-33, Hayes got the run started with a jumper with 11:55 left.
Michael Finke finally ended the Badgers’ surge with a dunk with 5:09 left to get Illinois within 50-48.
But in between the Illini missed six field goals, two foul shots and committed turnovers on four straight possessions. Illinois finished with 12 turnovers on the night.
"When you have 12 turnovers in a low-possession game, that’s not good enough," Groce said.
An Illinois bench already short-handed by injuries and an off-court issue got thinner because of the foul problems. It led to a significant edge at the foul line for Wisconsin, which was 26 of 33. Illinois was 7 of 10.
"We’ve got to figure out how we play harder without fouling," Groce said. "I thought that was maybe the biggest difference in the game."
Defensively, Wisconsin slowed down Hill in the second half. Gard said he decided to switch less often, and put the 6-foot-9 Hayes on Hill. Illinois’ 6-6 guard hit his last field goal with 12:22 left.
Illinois: The Illini last won in Madison in 2010. . . . Groce’s team was looking for consecutive Big Ten wins for the first time since closing out last season’s home schedule with victories over Northwestern and Nebraska.
Wisconsin: The Badgers extended their home winning streak to five games. . . . Wisconsin finished the night shooting 19 of 44 (43 percent) and 5 of 20 from 3-point territory. . . . Happ finished with six steals, the most by a Badgers player since Joe Krabbenhoft had six in 2009 against Ohio State.