Five shots. That’s how many Wisconsin missed in the first half en route to a 14-point halftime lead.
Unfortunately for the Badgers, they only made five in the second half, as they barely hung on at home to beat Northwestern 70-63.
Conversely, the Wildcats were a model of consistency, hitting exactly half their shots in each period. When the final buzzer sounded, free throws made the biggest difference, as Wisconsin made more (23) than Northwestern attempted (22) in the game.
“The difference was being patient enough at the end to get fouled to get to the line,” UW head coach Bo Ryan said. “Because they were very aggressive and for the most part (we) hit the free throws.”
John Shurna led all scorers in the game with 26 points, but it was not enough. Shurna was the only Wildcat in double figures, though each of the other four NU starters added eight points.
Four Badgers reached double digit points in the contest for Wisconsin, with Jason Bohannon’s 17 points leading the way. Jordan Taylor added 16 points while Trevon Hughes and Jon Leuer chipped in 13 and 11 points apiece, respectively.
Taylor was especially effective in the first half, leading all scorers with 14 points at the break. The sophomore guard was unable to maintain that pace in the second half, however, as he went 0-for-5 from the floor and 0-for-3 beyond the arc.
With Taylor and Bohannon leading the way combining for 24 first-half points, the Badgers went to the locker room shooting a 75 percent clip while hitting 5-of-9 from three. To open the game, Wisconsin hit its six shots from the floor, yet led by only four, as the Wildcats were 6-for-7 over the same stretch.
From that point, Wisconsin continued its hot shooting while Northwestern cooled off, though not by much.
“We weren’t able to make any stops,” NU head coach Bill Carmody said of his team’s first-half defense. “I thought we shot pretty well — we were 10-of-20 — but we took a couple bad shots. I didn’t think [Wisconsin] took any bad shots.”
The Badgers pushed it out to 19-12 soon after on a Hughes 3-pointer, but NU would fight back to get it down to three points with 7:30 remaining and again 30 seconds later after the teams exchanged points in the paint.
Wisconsin went on a 15-4 run over the final seven minutes of the half, however, as it appeared the Wildcats would no longer be able to hang with the Badgers.
Going into the second half, though, Carmody and the Wildcats knew they needed to change up their defense if they wanted to keep things close. That’s exactly what they did.
After switching from a matchup zone to a 1-3-1 in the first half, Northwestern became more aggressive defensively, especially on the wings with Drew Crawford and Shurna.
“They were very aggressive,” Ryan said of the Wildcats’ second-half defense. “That’s the best I’ve seen Northwestern play their half-court defense. They were reading well, they were flying, they were very attentive to detail, and they’re better at that right now.”
While the Badgers kept the lead in double figures for the first 11 minutes of the second period, a layup by Shurna off an offensive board and assist by Luka Mirkovic with 8:55 remaining sparked the Wildcats.
Including Shurna’s second-chance layup, NU went on an 8-0 run over the next two-plus minutes to cut Wisconsin’s lead to just three points at 57-54.
Bohannon answered with a big 3-pointer, pushing the lead back to six points with 6:15 to play. From that point, the Badgers won the game at the line, scoring their final 10 points on free throws.
“Down the stretch, it’s always key to make free throws,” Bohannon said. “Just making free throws down the stretch is crucial, always.”
Still, the two biggest free throws of the game for Wisconsin — and the ones everyone will remember — were a pair missed by Leuer with 2:12 remaining that allowed Northwestern to move within one after Shurna hit a pair on the other end.
Leuer more than made up for it late in the game, though.
As the Badgers led 66-63 with less than 30 seconds to play, Michael “Juice” Thompson took the ball for Northwestern and drove past the UW defense with what appeared to be a clear lane to the hoop.
But Leuer came quickly from the weak side and blocked Thompson’s layup off the backboard and into the hands of Bohannon with eight seconds left to seal the victory.
“The block was just trying to make up for all those free throws I missed,” Leuer said. “I just felt I had to make a play.”