Nigel Hayes grew up dreaming about being a Buckeye. That’s what he told the Wisconsin State Journal this week. He also said that Ohio State coach Thad Matta didn’t recruit him quite like Bo Ryan and assistant coach Lamont Paris did.
For most of Saturday’s game, and especially when Hayes scored 13 points in the second half, it looked as if Matta had made a major mistake.
What Matta did do right on the recruiting trail was land senior guard Aaron Craft, who brought the Buckeyes (17-5, 4-5) back late in the game and eventually made life difficult for the Badgers (17-5, 4-5) on the last possession, where Sam Dekker’s contested three-pointer clanked off the backboard and Ohio State topped Wisconsin, 59-58.
With 8.4 seconds remaining and trailing by one, Wisconsin had just been granted new life when Buckeyes guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. missed a wide open layup, grabbed his own rebound but fell the floor, travelling.
The Badgers would have to go the length of the floor, but in the double bonus, needed just a foul from Ohio State for a winning opportunity. That’s where Craft helped seal the victory.
Traevon Jackson took the inbound, racing up the floor with Craft retreating but in his face.
“The one thing we know about Traevon is … he likes big shots and he loves the ball at the end of the shot clock, at the end of the game,” Matta said. “We told our guys ‘He’s probably going to take the shot.’”
Each driving step by Jackson seemed anticipated by Craft and the UW guard gained zero separation from the all-Big Ten defender. Jackson picked up his dribble at the top of the key, passing to Dekker when LaQuinton Ross jumped in his way.
With little more than one second left, Dekker had to rush the shot, fading off balance to his right. When the ball hit the floor, Wisconsin had lost its third consecutive game at the Kohl Center and its fourth since starting the season 16-0. It was their first three-game home losing streak since the 1997-1998 season.
“To lose here is a little different then the last few years,” UW guard Josh Gasser said. “If you don’t bring it for a full 40 minutes that’s what is going to happen, no matter where you’re playing, no matter who you’re playing.”
Ohio State led for just seven minutes and 38 seconds Saturday afternoon, but was never far from it as Wisconsin’s largest lead — eight points — dwindled halfway through the first half.
With Wisconsin leading by four and less than four minutes remaining, Jackson sunk beneath a double screen, giving Craft his most open look of the day, where he made his first shot of the day, a three-pointer to cut the Wisconsin lead to one.
On the next possession he shook Hayes off the dribble for a layup, adding a pair of free throws 90 seconds later for the Ohio State lead. Those seven points were all Craft would contribute to the box score outside of four assists and two steals, but they were eventually all Ohio State needed.
Ross led the Buckeyes with 13 points while Amedeo Della Valle added 11 off the bench.
If it weren’t for Craft pulling it out for the Buckeyes, the story would have centered on Hayes, an Ohio native.
For most of the second half, Hayes was the focal point of UW’s offense, touching the ball almost every time down the floor, many times driving to the hoop from an extended post position.
Starting six-for-six, it wasn’t until 1:46 remained in the second half that Hayes missed his first shot of the game.
His drives garnered more than just points, they also garnered plenty of fouls in the Ohio State frontcourt. Unfortunately for the Badgers, Hayes converted just five of his 11 free throw attempts, the department where he’s struggled most his season.
“I missed more free throws than I made and that’s a problem,” Hayes said. “I really have to start converting from the free throw line. Getting there is not the problem.”
His teammates didn’t dominate the charity stripe, either. Wisconsin missed 10 free throws, their second most all season, and the misses didn’t stop there.
The 26.3 percent shooting woes from the Northwestern game Wednesday carried on beyond the arc for UW Saturday. After Ben Brust made his first two threes early on, the Badgers shot just 1-for-15 from distance.
When the shots aren’t falling, especially for one of UW’s best shooters, it naturally makes for a pretty sullen postgame press conference, as the Badgers will almost surely drop from the top 25 rankings come Monday.
“I don’t think we’re happy by any means, but we want to get back to what we know we can be,” Brust said. “We have to change something … we can’t sulk. We’ve got to move on.”