With No. 4 Wisconsin (15-0, 2-0 Big Ten) and No. 22 Iowa (12-3, 1-1) locked in an intense battle the Badgers got just the spark they needed from an unexpected source to vault them to a 75-71 win in their Big Ten home opener.
Iowa junior center Gabriel Olaseni picked up a foul with 11:52 left in the second half which triggered a media timeout and then all of hell broke loose. McCaffery began screaming at officials while being held back by his assistant coaches. That earned him one technical foul. Breaking the grasps of his assistants, McCaffery charged towards the referees, nearly incidentally punch an official and then bumped into another. That earned him a second technical and an automatic ejection.
“What I feel bad about is getting the second one,” McCaffery said of the technical fouls. “I think the first one, I think it’s safe to say that I kind of went after that one a little bit. The second one, I’m not so sure about that.”
What ensued can only be described as a blessing for a Wisconsin team that was struggling early on.
Senior guard Ben Brust went four-for-four on the technical shots giving Wisconsin its first lead of the game at 43-41.
“We were down and then we got up,” Brust said. “I remember gathering us up and saying, ‘We’ve got the lead now. We have to try and keep it now and build off that.’”
With the Kohl Center roaring after all of the commotion, the Badgers rode the momentum of the crowd to an 18-8 run in next 4:05 following McCaffery’s ejection.
Iowa did its best to overcome Wisconsin’s momentum late in the second half, led by senior guard Roy Devyn Marble who went for a game-high 27 points—4-5 from beyond the arch—bringing the game within one point with three minutes to go but the Badgers would not be denied its 15th-straight win thanks to clutch free throws by Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson to ice the game in the waning seconds.
While Wisconsin escaped with a victory Sunday night, the mere thought of a comeback seemed delusional at halftime with the Badgers down 35-24 to the Hawkeyes and shooting less than 30 percent from the field.
Brust was the catalyst in Wisconsin’s comeback, making all of his team-high 19 points in the final half after going 0-3 from the field in the first 20 minutes.
Shooting woes were not exclusive to Brust in the first half where the Badgers shot 26.7 percent (8-30) as a team and 4-9 from the free throw line.
Wisconsin’s struggles in the opening half didn’t stop at shooting. Iowa owned the paint outscoring the Badgers 20-6, won the battle of the boards with 27 rebounds to UW’s 16 and made the most of their rebounds with 18 second chance points compared to Wisconsin’s one.
“I think, collectively, we didn’t play basketball in the first half,” Brust said. “We were kind of just playing tentative and not being ourselves. We talked at halftime; we made some adjustments and came out hard. I think a couple shots got us going early. There was a swing of momentum in the second half and we rode it and took advantage of it.”
While most of the Badgers woke up offensively after McCaffery’s ejection, sophomore forward Sam Dekker — Wisconsin’s leading scorer — didn’t get his first bucket until 2:21 left in the game when he drilled a three from the corner to give his team a 67-63 lead.
“I was happy for him, to finally see the net move,” Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. “But he’s not going to back away from playing, so if he’s open he shoots. I never tell a guy, ‘Hey, you don’t take any more shots.’”
With the win, Wisconsin matches its best start in program history when the Badgers start 15-0 in the 1911-1912 and 1913-1914 seasons.
A theme for this Wisconsin basketball team has been its ability to adapt to its surroundings. It has played fast and slow-paced games and gritty games, but Sunday night the Badgers showed they can come back.
“This is a good group that responds to adversity because we have a bunch of guys that can almost light a fire underneath us,” Dekker said. “When we ride that wave we’re tough to stop.”