When all else fails, a struggling team must take what is given it.
Last year’s problems became the theme at the Kohl Center Saturday afternoon when missed free throws put the nail the Badgers’ coffin.
Owning a seven-point lead with 8 minutes, 52 seconds left in the game and in the bonus for the final 8 minutes, No. 14 Wisconsin (17-5, 4-5 Big Ten) would have the chance to ice the game at the free throw line.
Eight missed free throws later Wisconsin found itself on the wrong end of a 59-58 loss to No. 24 Ohio State (17-5, 4-5) at home falling for the third-straight time at the Kohl Center this season.With 25 seconds left, down by two, Wisconsin junior guard Traevon Jackson had the chance to tie it at 59 heading to the line for two free throws.
Jackson — a player who has hit clutch free throws in the past — came up short on his second freebie, leaving the Buckeyes a one-point lead that they would not give up.
When asked what his team did well defensively down the stretch to be able to pull out the win, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta made no question about it answering: “fouled.”
Jackson wasn’t the only player on the Wisconsin side to hurt his team at the line. The usually reliable veterans Ben Brust and Josh Gasser, who are first and third in free throw percentage respectively on the roster, missed from the line with less than five minutes left.
“We wanted to get [to the line] obviously,” Gasser said. “It happens sometimes, you can’t make everyone of them, sometimes you shoot it and they don’t fall.”
But it was the freshman forward and Ohio native Nigel Hayes whose season-long struggles at the free throw line may have been the difference.
Hayes provided a much needed spark off of the bench in the second half for Wisconsin, picking up 14 of his 17 points in the second half on 6-7 shooting from the floor.
But Hayes, who led the team in free throw attempts, wouldn’t even convert on half of his chances going 5-11 from the line.
“I missed more free throws than I made and that’s a big problem,” Hayes said. “I have to start converting at the free throw line. Getting there is not the problem — I need to just start making my shots so I can help the team.”
The freshman out of Toledo owns the team’s worst free throw percentage converting just 59 percent of his shots and admitted the missed shots start to get in his head.
“It’s all mental,” Hayes said. “I have to take it upon my self to have a short memory when it comes to the free throw line, so if I miss I start over at zero for zero and try to knock the next ones down.”
Trouble from downtown
While troubles at the free throw line are nothing new for a Wisconsin team that hit just 64 percent of its shots from the line last year, struggling to convert from beyond the three-point arc is a unique problem for this Badger team.
In its last 100 attempts from three-point territory, Wisconsin has hit just 27 of them including a then-season-worst result against Northwestern last Wednesday where the Badgers went 5 for 24 from beyond the arc.
Saturday wasn’t much different for Wisconsin going up against the best three-point defending team in the Big Ten as the Badgers hit only three of its shot from deep on 17 attempts (17.6 percent) — a new season low.
Wisconsin was able to find clean looks on kick outs and swings along the perimeter, but couldn’t get the ball to go down.
“I have a hard time figuring out how in the last two games we didn’t knock down more perimeter shots. That I don’t understand,” head coach Bo Ryan said.”Guys have to be able to step up and hit shots and obviously we didn’t. We miss some free throws, missed some wide-open shots for threes. If you expect to be on the left hand side you have to make some of those.”
Shooting has been a problem for Wisconsin in its last two losses shooting 32.3 percent from the field and just 19.5 percent from three-point range.
Ryan accounts for shooting as the major reason for the Badgers’ recent slide that has dropped them to sixth in the Big Ten.
“In the last two games [the difference] has basically been the shots,” Ryan said. “I thought we had a great blend of inside, outside, but we have some guys who have some deficiencies and they show and other teams have exploited those. So, the guys that that’s happening to have to get better, which is what we’re still trying to do.”