INDIANAPOLIS — Minnesota had already beaten the Wisconsin men’s basketball team once this season and this time it was playing with a NCAA Tournament berth in the balance, but Ben Brust wasn’t about to let the Golden Gophers spoil his final run at a Big Ten Tournament Championship.
It was a career night for several Badgers, but Brust made his mark in the conference tournament quarterfinals hitting a career-high 29 points on 8 of 15 shooting from the floor — 4 of 10 from three — and a perfect nine for nine from the free-throw line.
DeAndre Mathieu scored a team-high 18 points for Minnesota and Joey King pitched in with 14 points.
Behind Brust’s record night and major contributions from the bench with Nigel Hayes scoring 15 and Bronson Koenig putting up 14, Wisconsin punched its ticket to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals dropping Minnesota 83-57 and handing head coach Bo Ryan his 700th win of his career.
“As long as we get the win, that’s all that matters now in March,” Brust said. “I just came out and some things started falling and then just tried to play with energy throughout the whole game and come up with a couple loose balls.”
If there was any concern about the way the Badgers would begin the game coming off a tough loss to Nebraska, they were quickly put to rest as they jumped to a 21-9 lead in just over ten minutes.
After spending a majority of his time on the bench in the critical minutes of the Badgers’ loss to the Cornhuskers, sophomore guard responded by opening the quarterfinal with back-to-back scores.
From then on Wisconsin would hold a lead and never surrender it to Minnesota, putting pressure on the Golden Gophers offense.
“It’s really frustrating because they’re a really good offensive team, and they really just controlled the pace of the game,” Minnesota’s point guard Mathieu said. “And once they got a big lead, we knew we had to get stops, but we just couldn’t get stops today.”
Minnesota would cut into Wisconsin’s lead, coming within 10 points on three different occasions, but the Badgers were able to weather the runs and counter with a run of their own that put the game further and further out of reach.
“I’m just proud of our guys to have handled a couple runs that Minnesota made,” Ryan said. “We know they can score points in a hurry. It’s not like we relaxed. But I give our guys a lot of credit for toughening up and getting the help from the bench. And they played off of each other pretty well, and we played it all the way through.”
With 7:34 left in the game and Minnesota riding a 10-5 run, the freshman forward Hayes took Wisconsin’s fate into his own hands scoring seven-straight points to give the Badgers 62-45 lead and effectively put the game out of reach for Minnesota.
Hayes was finding his success around the rim with his quickness that presented a challenge that Minnesota’s big men could not solve.
“That’s the great part about Nigel,” Brust said. “He’s got quick enough feet to get by guys and he can step out when guys are playing back on him, so he’s the ultimate mismatch.”
Although Hayes would finish second on the team with 15 points, he says he was primarily looking to get the ball to Brust.
“Well, really I was just trying to get the ball to Ben,” Hayes said with his signature smile. “Ben was shooting the ball pretty well, so if I did have the opportunity to take my own shot, I was trying to make sure that I made it because Ben makes his.”
When Hayes wasn’t scoring in the second half, it was Koenig putting points on the board for Wisconsin, scoring eight of his 14 points in the second half and shooting a perfect four for four from the floor that would be a major factor in the Badgers’ 64 percent shooting clip in the final 20 minutes.
With the contributions from Hayes and Koenig, Wisconsin’s bench tied a season-high 32 bench points. And though it was the offense of the two freshman that stuck out to most people, that’s not what coach Ryan paid attention to.
“This is one game, so I won’t get carried away,” Ryan said. “They happened to fall into place today with the shots going down, but, more importantly, on the defensive end I thought the two of them did a really good job of some things that they’re still working on and learning because of the lack of possessions.
“So they’re improving, and that’s what we like to see. I don’t know how often you can have two freshmen have that kind of night shooting-wise, but I’m impressed with what they were doing defensively.”
Wisconsin’s win puts it further into the conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament while Minnesota’s hopes of going dancing may have just come to a screeching halt.
“They’re a really good team, really good team top to bottom. They don’t beat themselves,” Pitino said. “They have a couple guys on the roster who are potential NBA players…They make you pay when you make a mistake, so they’ve got an opportunity if they win this thing to potentially be a 1 seed. They knew they were a very good team, and we had a lot of respect for them.”