After starting the week undefeated, the Wisconsin basketball team has quickly lost twice in a row following a 77-70 loss to Michigan Saturday evening.
It was almost as if that once-undefeated squad got a late start out of Bloomington and failed to arrive at the Kohl Center until well into the second half.
The defensive struggles that plagued the No. 3 Badgers (16-2, 3-2) against Indiana continued as the Wolverines (13-4, 5-0) netted 43 points by halftime, the second-most of any Wisconsin opponent this season. Add in a slow start for Wisconsin in the second half and it was the perfect recipe for a Michigan blowout.
With just more than 10 minutes remaining, the blowout was in the oven and baking.
But then that Badgers defense that has become noteworthy for all the wrong reasons flipped the switch. Wisconsin forced Michigan away from the lane and into contested jump shots; shots that fell in the first 30 minutes but clanked for most of the final 10.
A 10-0 run that featured three-pointers from center Frank Kaminsky and guard Josh Gasser narrowed the Michigan lead to just three at 68-65. Four minutes remained, and the Kohl Center had awoken from its quiet nap.
Ben Brust’s layup with just less than two minutes left made it a one-point game. That pressuring Badgers defense looked like it had another important stop ready for the next possession as Michigan guard Nik Stauskas rose up for a 26-foot three-point try, barely beating the shot clock.
The shot missed the rim, but the referees didn’t miss the physical play beneath the hoop as Gasser tried to box out Michigan big man Jordan Morgan. Gasser’s foul gave the Wolverines another full possession, which they seemed to desperately need.
“When [Wisconsin] made that run, I saw a couple of heads go down,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We had to challenge them to say, ‘We’re going to win this game … by being aggressive.’”
Sophomore guard Stauskas took that to heart.
With the ball on the left wing, a screen had switched Wisconsin freshman forward Nigel Hayes onto Stauskas. The Michigan guard took one attacking dribble to his right, then another moving him inside the arc. His next dribble was bounced behind his body and through his legs as he stepped back beyond the three-point line, now with plenty of separation, enough to trigger and make his third three-pointer of the game.
“My teammates and coaches … gave me a lot of confidence. They just told me to keep shooting the ball and eventually it was going to go in,” Stauskas said. “When I get that kind of confidence, I just let it fly.”
It was a less-than-ideal situation for Hayes, guarding the quicker guard during the last-minute play.
“Anytime a guy steps back like that — you try to cover that type of ground on that quick of a release,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said, likening Stauskas’ quickness to that of a feline. “That step back is so fast and that release is so fast, you’re not going to.”
Michigan was up four and while Wisconsin failed to convert buckets on either of its next two possessions, Stauskas made all six of his free throw tries in the waning moments to ice the game.
His game-high 23 points were complemented by 20 from guard Caris LeVert and 14 from Glenn Robinson III. The trio — the top three scorers on the season for Michigan — used an array of ball screens throughout the night to open up jump shots, many of which they hit in streaks.
“Think back, how many games, how many years did people hit jump shots like that against us?” Ryan pondered. “Sometimes teams are going to get hot and you try to take them off of it.”
Wisconsin sliced the number of points surrendered in the paint by half (26) from its defeat on Tuesday, but 60 percent shooting from Michigan still allowed the Wolverines to score 70-plus points, the fourth-straight Wisconsin opponent to do so.
When Indiana made it three in a row, Ben Brust tweeted after the game, “Is it Saturday yet???,” anxious to get back on the court after their first loss. Staring at some glaring defensive issues and now with a pair of conference losses, they’ll head to Minnesota Wednesday night, looking to right the ship. It’s been a week they’d like to forget, to say the least.
“You can’t look back. You just have to keep moving forward,” Gasser said. “We’re in the Big Ten. It’s the toughest conference for a reason.”