For most of the game Sunday, Wisconsin held the lead over Michigan State, but while the Badgers may have had more points on the scoreboard, they were never quite in control.
Not when Frank Kaminsky hit a three-pointer — his first in his last eight tries — putting the Badgers up five with 29 seconds left in the game. Not even when Ben Brust — a 94 percent free throw shooter on the season — walked to the free throw line, up three with just 19 seconds left.
Wisconsin (19-5, 6-5 Big Ten) wasn’t fully in control until Traevon Jackson turned around and stared at the crowd with 2.1 seconds remaining, having hit the game-winning pull-up jumper over Spartan guard Gary Harris.
Michigan State (20-4, 9-2) guard Travis Trice made it almost too interesting when his half-court heave just moments later clanked off the side of the rim and Wisconsin got their first home victory in a month, topping Michigan State 60-58.
And though Jackson and Kaminksy — a pair of juniors — made the big shots for Wisconsin in the final minute, it was a pair of underclassmen that carried the Badgers for much of the game.
Hayes, Dekker lead the way
For the second-straight weekend, it was Nigel Hayes as the offensive spearhead for the Badgers.
The 6-foot-7 freshman racked up 27 minutes, his second-highest total on the season, grabbing just one rebound but leading the Badgers with 14 points. His four fouls became an issue in the final minute, but it was actually his ability to draw fouls from Michigan State big men throughout the game that became a bigger story.
Both Matt Costello and Alex Gauna had two fouls by halftime increasing the need for a winded Adreian Payne on the floor. By the end of the game, Costello had four and Payne had three as well, many of them at the hand of Hayes.
“As I’ve said many times, for those who care to listen, Nigel is pretty special,” UW coach Bo Ryan said. “He’s really given us a big boost. He’s done things his way, where he just works.”
Hayes converted eight of 12 free throw attempts, his best rate in more than three weeks. His running mate in the scorer’s book for much of the game was fellow underclassman Sam Dekker.
Dekker’s first touch of the game found him on the right wing not even 10 seconds after tipoff. It seemed like he never thought twice about shooting, hoisting his first attempt and swishing the Badgers into a 3-0 lead. His second attempt came seven minutes later, swishing the Badgers to a 12-all tie.
Dekker had made just two of his previous 18 three-point attempts entering the week, but after going 4-for-7 against Illinois and 3-for-6 Sunday, it’s fair to say his confidence has returned.
“I’ve never looked at myself as not a good shooter, but it was just a slump I was going through for a few games,” Dekker said. “I got a few quick looks in the first half where they sagged off me a little bit and I was able to put them up and knock them down.
“That’s really big for your confidence, not only for yourself but for the team.”
Dekker connected on one more three in the second half, finishing with 11 points on the day. Across the scorer’s table, Michigan State was looking to rely upon an underclassman of their own.
Harris’ struggles plague MSU offense
With senior point guard Keith Appling injured and missing just the second game of this career at Michigan State, it was Harris, the Big Ten’s leading scorer that was looked upon to provide much of the offense.
In sum, Harris had a rough day.
The 6-foot-4 sophomore struggled shooting the ball for much of the afternoon, going just 3-for-20 from the field and 0-for-7 from beyond the arc. Yet without Appling — second in the Big Ten in assists — Harris continued to be the focal point of the Spartans offense, leading the team with 36 minutes played. He simply couldn’t put the ball in the basket.
“He didn’t take the best shots and I think he got a little frustrated,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said. “There were times when we just didn’t have anybody else in there that could make shots, so the ball got stuck in his hands a lot.”
Harris was 0-for-8 at halftime, but as all shooters are trained to do, he kept firing away. A couple of loose balls coughed up in the Wisconsin frontcourt led to a pair of back-to-back breakaway dunks for Harris. He had been flanked by Josh Gasser all afternoon, but just like that his quick four points had the Badgers guard thinking.
“He got those two fastbreak dunks. I was kind of thinking to myself, ‘Uh,oh, he’s going to get going here,’” Gasser said.
But he didn’t. Instead, he missed his next seven shots and failed to convert a jumper until less than 30 seconds remained in the game. Ryan noted that’s how Gasser normally plays, but that his teammates helped him out as Harris was chased around countless screens, on and off the ball.
“I just tried to force him to my help and my guys did a good job of helping me out, forcing him into some tough shots,” Gasser said. “Sometimes he makes [them], sometimes he doesn’t. Fortunately tonight he didn’t.”
Whatever it was, it worked as Harris scored just six points and Michigan State lost sole control of first place in the Big Ten.