CHICAGO — Traevon Jackson’s message was clear. His team trying to recollect itself in the United Center locker room at halftime and recover from a disastrous 17-point first half effort, the sophomore guard had an idea for reigniting Wisconsin’s offense: stop heaving up contested three-pointers and feed the ball through the post at the beginning of possessions.
Jackson’s idea not only worked, but did so with stunning success in the final 20 minutes, as a 51-point second half was enough for the No. 22 Badgers (22-10) to knock off No. 6 Wolverines (26-7) 68-59 in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament Friday afternoon.
“It isn’t like all of a sudden it was a revelation at halftime, ‘Oh, let’s go inside,’” UW head coach Bo Ryan said. “When the players see it work, it’s a revelation, because then [they realize] ‘Oh yeah, this works.’”
Fifth-year senior forward Ryan Evans served on the frontline of that inside attack, backing down Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III. The post attack of Evans helped to create open outside looks for assists when he wasn’t using his own vault of moves to take it to the basket himself. Dishing out five of his career-high six assists and grabbing nine of his 12 points in the second half, he set the path for teammates to follow the remainder of the game.
With 22 points in the paint in the final period — 18 more than in the first half — it was the success inside that allowed Ben Brust and Mike Bruesewitz to recover from an early offensive performance that nearly crippled any chance at a comeback. The very team that missed each of their first eight three-point attempts and shot 17.2 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes had somehow transformed into a highly efficient offense.
“Trae called a couple plays in the post for both me and Jared,” Evans said. “We wanted to go inside-out and that’s how we started out the half. I started with the bucket, then they had to collapse, we’re hitting our three-point shooters, Mike and Ben.”
But a Wolverines team that came within a few possessions of a share of the Big Ten title in a loss to Indiana Sunday refused to fall with such ease. After UW climbed out to an 11-point lead with 6:01 on the clock — its largest lead of the game — sophomore point guard Trey Burke took over the game the only way a Big Ten Player of the Year can.
Burke, who collected 15 of his 19 points in the second half, showcased his acrobatic moves beneath the basket and hit a floater in the paint to net six points in just more than two minutes and anchor a 9-0 Michigan run. With the Wolverines back within a single basket of tying the game up and senior forward Jared Berggren on the bench with three fouls, sophomore forward Frank Kaminsky helped lock up a semifinals matchup with top-seeded Indiana Saturday.
Kaminsky’s most critical shot came as the shot clock neared zero with only 2:26 left in the game, and he fired up a jumper in the lane — not his preferred shot — that slowly trickled into the cylinder to put the Badgers up four.
“Frank did a great job coming in and producing,” said Brust, who finished with 14 points. “We got a couple big shots, couple at the end of the shot clock and he was big for us. He knows that if his name’s called, he’s got to contribute.”
As impressive as Wisconsin’s offense appeared for much of the second half, it was equally uninspiring in the first half. The Badgers were only able to overcome one of their worst offensive stretches of the year by shooting 60.7 percent from the floor and 66.7 percent from three-point land.
A strong defensive effort and similarly cold shooting from Michigan left them with just a three-point lead before the halftime break. With a grand total of six points through the game’s first 11-plus minutes, a Jackson three-pointer from the left wing just before the break capped a 7-2 UW run to close out the half and set the tone for a starkly different second half.
“Sometimes when it’s your last go-around — Big Ten tournament, NCAA tournament — are you squeezing yourself a little too tight?,” Ryan said of the early struggles. “Just play. I thought our guys did a much better job of that and it happened to be younger guys who got that spark plug.”
It was Jackson who stepped up Friday, leading his team with 16 points and handing out three assists on an efficient 4-of-7 day from the field. After refreshing his fellow players on the offensive gameplan in the halftime locker room, the young point guard hit five of his six attempts at the free throw line to place the game firmly in Wisconsin’s control.
Even with one of the country’s most skilled and athletic backcourts lining up across from them, the Badgers’ collective production had prevailed over the best efforts of Burke and his co-stars.
“Yeah these guys are NBA guys, but we believe in ourselves as well,” Jackson said. “I think we got a really talented group of guys and when we come together we can beat anybody.”