The phrase “a tale of two halves” is often over-used in sports and can come off as cliché, but it couldn’t be anymore applicable than to the Wisconsin men’s basketball team Tuesday night.
Wisconsin (23-5, 10-5 Big Ten) was well aware of what they were getting in a game with Indiana (15-12, 5-9) after suffering its first loss of the season in Bloomington, Ind. in January. It was going to be a tough, grind-it-out game and the Badgers would have to play as well as they had in the couple of weeks if they were to extend their winning streak to six games. They didn’t make it easy on themselves in the first half.
Wisconsin couldn’t have started the game any slower, making just seven shots on a 25.9 percent shooting clip from the field in the first half.
It was a different story for Indiana who got off to a quick start with the hot hand of Will Sheehey who recorded the first seven points of the game in less than three minutes for the Hoosiers. Then it was freshman forward Noah Vonleh who kept the offense going, scoring 10 first-half points.
After scoring only seven points in the final ten minutes of the first half, the Badgers would manage just 19 points — a season low in the first half — and went into the locker room with a 29-19 deficit on their hands.
For Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan and his team, it wasn’t a time to panic.
“He just said relax, we’ll figure this out,” sophomore guard Sam Dekker said of Ryan’s halftime talk to the team. “It’s 40 minutes of basketball, not 20, so our best 20 minutes is ahead of us. It’s our turn to do it. And we were able to calm down and go out there and do it.”
Ryan’s calm approach during halftime worked as Wisconsin came out in the second half looking like a completely different team on the offensive end of the floor.
UW hit six of its first eight shots from the floor including two-straight three pointers by senior guard Ben Brust who was 0-for-5 in the first half.
“I think it kind of ignited this team,” Brust said of his three-point makes early in the second half. “It just kind of trickled down to everyone else. So, it just kind of got us going and opened things up.”
It wasn’t just Brust who woke up in the second half for the Badgers, Dekker came alive in the second stanza scoring 13 of his team-high 16 points in the final 20 minutes.
Ryan asked his star forward to play with more aggressiveness in the final half.
“I kept asking him to make sure the people who bought their seats knew that he was in the gym,” Ryan said. “I thought it was a good suggestion, ‘Make your presence felt a little bit.’ He’s easy to talk to.”
The offensive outburst in the second half would translate to a 62 percent (13-21) shooting average from the field and 50 points after scoring less than 20 in the first.
“Shots went down, that’s all you can really say for that second half,” Sam Dekker said. “Sometimes you are not always going to get the rolls, but in the second half we were able to get that, get some good looks and put it up with confidence.”
As good as the offense was for Wisconsin in the second half, its defense held up the other end of the court, neutralizing Indiana’s attack.
The Hoosiers’ three-headed attack of Sheeyhey, Vonleh and Yogi Ferrell that combined for 27 points in the first half was held to just 13 points in the second half with two minutes to go in the game. Ferrell would hit three buckets from long range in the final two minutes to give him a game-high 24 points, but by then Wisconsin had the game well in hand.
Vonleh went 4-of-10 from the field in the second half after missing only one attempt in the first. Ryan made sure that if the freshman was going to score on Wisconsin in the second half, he was going to have to earn every point.
“Basically, if he’s going to score in there is going to have to be off a great move, not just an average move,” Ryan said. “He made a couple. He’s pretty good. But, I thought we had enough help in there to keep him from getting a lot of easy baskets.”
With Ferrell, Sheehey and Vonleh all struggling to score for the majority of the final half, Wisconsin was able to build its lead to as much as 15 to put the game too far out of reach for Indiana.
With the win, the Badgers are now guaranteed their 14th consecutive winning season conference play and improve their home-winning streak over the Hoosiers to 12 games.