Many would brand Wisconsin’s 49-47 loss to No 13 Michigan State Tuesday night as Big Ten Basketball in its rawest form – a low-scoring, physical affair with several lengthy scoreless stretches.
But for the Badgers, the game slipped away at the free throw line when George Marshall missed the first of two free throws that could have tied up the game with three seconds left at the Kohl Center. The redshirt freshman missed the rim entirely on his second attempt – an intentional miss – and prevented a last-second shot attempt from UW.
That followed three-straight missed attempts from the charity stripe by fifth-year senior forward Jared Berggren, each putting the Spartans that much closer to victory.
“It’s cost us games before and it obviously cost us today,” senior forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “We got to get in the gym and just start knocking them down, plain and simple. It can’t be an excuse anymore.”
Bo Ryan’s squad finished the game 7-of-18 (38.9 percent) from the free throw line, a troubling trend for a team that now ranks last in the Big Ten in free throw percentage.
The late-game issues at the line followed up a solid first half performance from Wisconsin, who took a one-point lead into the locker room and led by as much as seven early on. The lead continued to slip away after the break, as the Badgers regained an advantage only once after the 17:52 mark of the second half.
Against a bigger Michigan State lineup anchored inside by the 6-foot-9 Derrick Nix and 6-foot-10 Adreian Payne inside, Berggren and co. said settling for low-percentage shots cost them late.
“I felt like I was getting a good number of touches inside and they were sinking and I was kicking it out for some decent looks,” said Berggren, who finished with nine points on 4-of-15 shooting. “So the looks were there, I think we got to do a better job attacking the rim some more and not always settle, especially on a night like this when shots aren’t falling.”
As both teams struggled to find their offensive grooves, the Spartans relied on forward Branden Dawson in the paint and guard Keith Appling outside to even approach the 50-point mark by game’s end.
Appling – whose day included a rare four-point play late in the first half – scored a game-high 19 with a diverse arsenal of three-pointers, floaters in the lane and pull-up jumpers.
Dawson netted 11 of his 18 points in the first half, taking advantage of Wisconsin’s lack of depth in the frontcourt with Frank Kaminsky sitting out his second consecutive game after suffering an eye injury against Indiana.
“I think that … definitely hurt them some,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. “Watching them in the Indiana game [Kaminsky] was pretty good, just gives them that dimension that he can pop and do some things and at other times I worry about us having to go against smaller guys because they’re quicker, they can take us off the dribble.”
Despite the offensive outbursts from the Spartan duo that accounted for over 73 percent of their team’s points, the game was marred by long stretches with little-to-no scoring. A Ben Brust three-pointer marked the first basket for either team four minutes into the game, setting the stage for the defensive battle many expected.
The game’s final minutes ended in familiar fashion, an open three-pointer from forward Ryan Evans the Badgers’ lone converted field goal in the game’s final seven-plus minutes. It was Evans’ shot that cut Michigan State’s lead to two and made a potential last-second comeback possible. The critical three-pointer was a small bright spot for Evans, whose shots consistently came up short on a 3-of-13 night from the floor.
After a quick foul, Michigan State’s freshman guard Gary Harris then converted one of his two free throws before Ryan put the game in his young guard’s hands. Unable to get a satisfactory look from outside, Marshall attacked the hoop to draw the foul – the right decision, according to Bruesewitz.
Then the game came down to the exact spot where Wisconsin had surrendered so many points throughout the game.
“As a young guy you’ve got to learn that yeah, that’s a very important play,” Bruesewitz said of Marshall’s free throws. “But there was an exponential number of plays prior to that that put us in that position and we can’t blame it all on one play and I told him that.”
Neither Ryan nor the players could explain the team’s troubling performance at the line. Repetition and regaining a rhythm at the line was the only solution, and Berggren said much of the battle was mental.
“It’s a craft, you get good at something,” Ryan said.
“There’s nothing like the game though. It’s always easy for people on the outside looking in with free throws, until you’ve been there and its something about what you got inside, physically and mentally.”