EAST LANSING — Although Big Ten basketball can tend to show it’s ugly face with brash, defensive battles throughout the winter months, Wisconsin had yet to experience one like they did Thursday night against Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich.
The Badgers (20-10, 11-6) hung around the Spartans (23-7, 12-5) for most of the first half, but a second half surge vaulted Michigan State to a double-digit lead; one that the poor-shooting Badgers were far from climbing from as they fell on the road, 58-43
Stingy Sparty defense
When Wisconsin scored just 20 points in the second half on 8-of-27 shooting in the senior day loss to Purdue, the floor looked like it couldn’t get any lower, or so it seemed. That was until the opening tip of Thursday night’s game at the Breslin Center.
If the Badgers had thought they faced a stingy defense from the Boilermakers Sunday afternoon, Michigan State would soon raise their outlook.
Wisconsin struggled to get good looks throughout the first half, often settling for contested jump shots from around the three-point arc, displaying a reluctance to drive to the hoop against an extended man-to-man defense from Michigan State.
“We were so stagnant with too much standing around, stuff that’s uncharacteristic of us and things we usually don’t do at all,” freshman Sam Dekker said of the offensive issues. “It just wasn’t there for us I guess. We have a lot to learn and a lot to improve on.”
Michigan State forced Wisconsin into eight turnovers in the opening frame, nearly matching the Badgers season average of 9.4, which was good for the top spot in the Big Ten. In fact, without some stingy defense themselves, Wisconsin could have lost control of the game even earlier.
“Obviously, they played good ‘D’, and if it wasn’t for us playing pretty decent ‘D’, [the difference] would have been maybe 25, 30-point game,” head coach Bo Ryan said. “I thought that both teams, defensively, were working hard and they didn’t hit shots and we didn’t hit shots.”
As if the floor wasn’t low enough after the first half, it got even lower for the Badgers in the second. The Spartans’ defense continued to thwart the Badgers opportunities, particularly those of sharpshooter Ben Brust.
It took Brust nearly the entire first half before he would contribute to the scoring effort as he made his first three-pointer with just 2:32 left in the opening half. After that, Spartans’ guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris made Brust largely disappear into a non-factor.
It took almos 20 minutes for Brust to find the hoop again, this time from the free throw line with little more than three minutes remaining in the game.
His final stat line improved to double figure scoring, but his impact on the floor only came as the final minutes were ticking away with the Michigan State lead hovering around 16 points.
“I’m not really going to categorize anything other than we just need to take care of the ball better,” Brust said of Wisconsin’s season-high 17 turnovers. “[The amount of] turnovers is just mind-boggling, but we did it, so we have to take responsibility.”
Meanwhile, as the Spartans’ defense kept the Badgers quiet, the defensive specialists guarding Brust were extending a lead of their own.
Harris, Appling lead second half charge
Harris, the freshman guard, and Appling, the junior point guard, entered Thursday’s game leading the Spartans in scoring with 13.3 and 13.2 points per game, respectively.
As Ryan alluded to, the Badgers played them well in the first half, holding Appling to just five points while Brust kept Harris scoreless on 0-of-6 shooting from the field. It was only a matter of time, though, before the favorite for the Big Ten Freshman of the Year would find his scoring groove.
After another pair of missed jump shots to open the second half, Harris finally got a layup to go his way with little more than 16 minutes remaining. That bucket pushed the Michigan State lead to nine at 29-20, their largest of the game. They wouldn’t look back.
The nine-point lead grew to 16 after an Appling layup, foul and free throw conversion at the 12:20 mark. Another similar Appling conversion followed just two minutes later, extending the Spartan lead to 21 before Dekker ended the Michigan State scoring run with a layup after nearly eight minutes of consecutive Wisconsin misses.
By then, the Spartan’s leading scorers had vaulted Michigan State to 41 points, a total Wisconsin wouldn’t touch until Dekker made an insignificant three-pointer with just 12 seconds remaining and the Badgers down 18.
Harris finished with 11 points while Appling led all scorers with 19, 14 of them coming in the second 20 minutes. He matched his scoring total from the first Wisconsin-Michigan State game of the season, but bested himself by not committing a single turnover Thursday night. Although they deferred to their big men early on, the pair of Spartan guards proved to be Badger killers in the end.
“Appling and Gary [Harris] are two tremendous players and we know what they can do,” Dekker said. “They can hurt anyone on any given night, and when we don’t get back like we should and when we don’t keep a man in front of us and stick to our principles … those guys are going to exploit that.”