MINNEAPOLIS – It was overtime again. For a program-record third straight game, Wisconsin needed extra time against Minnesota Thursday night and the lone difference was that this time, the Badgers could not complete the closing act.
Because this time, even overtime could not drag the No. 20 Badgers out of an 11-minute field goal drought in a 58-53 loss to the Gophers at Williams Arena. After a pair of missed free throws from Ryan Evans – the fifth-year senior finished 2-for-8 from the charity stripe – Minnesota guard Andre Hollins sunk a three-pointer with a lunging Jared Berggren in his face. Three-plus minutes remained in overtime yet it already felt like a game-winner.
Poor free throw shooting – which has plagued the Badgers all year, never moreso than in a two-point loss to Michigan State Jan. 22 – had proved the difference in letting a critical road victory slip away.
“If [Evans] just makes his free throws, we’re out of here, we’re on the plane already,” head coach Bo Ryan said postgame. “What am I going to do with the guy? You knew it was going to get us one game, hopefully not two.”
But the Badgers’ fortunes first took a woeful turn with senior forward Mike Bruesewitz standing on the baseline to in-bounds the ball with 1:16 left in regulation and UW holding onto a two-point lead. Unable to find a good angle to fire off a ball to Traevon Jackson, Bruesewitz took a few steps to the left, an automatic turnover on an in-bounds play after a foul.
“Internal clock’s running down, I’ve been in that position 100 times, if not more,” Bruesewitz said. “We’ve done it in practice where we can’t move. Just took one too many steps, I tried to get a better angle to get the ball to Trae and they called it and that was the game.”
Minnesota’s Joe Coleman took advantage by hitting a pair of free throws to tie up the game, but Wisconsin still had a chance to overcome its shooting woes with the ball in its hands and 17 seconds on the clock. There was but one man who would take the final shot, and it was Jackson, the sophomore guard who has held the game-deciding shot in his hands several times this year.
Jackson brought the ball up the court and dribbled around the perimeter, never looking comfortable but pulling up near the foul line as the clocked neared zero. He leaned in as he fired off the shot to draw contact but that proved unsuccessful and capped a run of six unanswered points by the Gophers to close out the second half.
“He just didn’t make some good decisions finishing,” Ryan said of Jackson. “Getting in there you could draw people and then they could pass, kick it out. I think he felt he was going to get to the rim and he’s gotten to the rim before.”
Though Minnesota managed just five points in the additional five minutes of play, the Badgers’ offensive futility kept them from stealing another Big Ten victory through relentless defense.
Ryan’s squad lumbered to a 30.5 percent field goal percentage for the game as the Badgers hit just 7-of-28 tries from beyond the three-point arc.
No single player better represented the offensive struggles than Evans, who hit only two of his eight shots Thursday night. Five of those shots came in the paint near the basket and the four offensive rebounds he turned into put-backs often came up short.
Steady shooting early allowed Wisconsin to climb to a 10-point lead with under three minutes to play in the first half, but, in a trend that reappeared with a vengeance in the second half, Minnesota quickly erased it. By halftime an 8-0 run by the Gophers had UW clinging onto a two-point lead.
Andre Hollins led Minnesota’s resurgent victory with 21 points but the home squad never pulled away thanks to its own shooting woes. Hollins himself finished 5-of-16 shooting and his teammates fared similarly as the Gophers finished with a 36.7 percent conversion rate. This, Wisconsin players said, seemed like the win that got away.
“If we execute the way we’re capable of and the way we have been recently down the stretch, we probably survive and get out of here in regulation with the win,” senior forward Jared Berggren said. “But that’s not the case and got a little stagnant, we let their pressure get to us a little bit. We just didn’t make plays when we had to step up.”
One of the few bright spots for UW offensively was the play of Sam Dekker, who led the team with 14 points at The Barn. The freshman forward killed Minnesota’s momentum and energized the Badgers with two back-to-back three-pointers that granted his team a two-point lead after the midway point of the second half.
Just five days removed from his heroics against Michigan, Ben Brust launched 11 shots from long range and hit only three of them on his way to 11 points. Fully immersed in the Big Ten title race after knocking off the Wolverines Saturday, Hollins and Co. had dealt the Badgers’ conference title hopes a significant blow in Minneapolis.
“There’s a lot of games left,” Berggren said. “But if things do come out where we end up a game short or something like that, this is definitely something we can look back on and have some regrets.”