Struggling teams are sometimes the toughest matchups, especially in college basketball, where anything can happen on any given night.
The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team almost learned that the hard way Tuesday night at the Kohl Center, as No. 17 Wisconsin (15-3, 4-1 Big Ten) held on 68-64 against Michigan (12-7, 2-4) in what was a brutal offensive performance for both teams the majority of the game. Although the Wolverines had already suffered in-conference losses to Iowa, Illinois and Maryland, they looked like a team unnerved by their 2-3 conference record.
The score was tied at 49 with 4:30 to go, and senior guard Bronson Koenig did what he does best — drill clutch 3-pointers, this one from about four feet behind the arc. He followed that bomb with another, this time right in front of the Badger bench, to give UW a 55-49 lead it would not look back on.
The unconsciousness from Koenig, who had a team-high 16 points, was a personal 10-0 run and part of a 15-0 run the Badgers used to climb out of a second-half deficit due in large part to dismal offensive execution. Senior forward Nigel Hayes (13 points) received a fortuitous bounce from the rim on a three to increase the UW lead to 58-49.
Koenig scored just three points in the first half, and took it upon himself to take over with UW trailing late.
“I was pretty frustrated the whole game because I just wasn’t getting many looks,” Koenig said. “I knew I had to get myself going somehow, especially with the game was going. I told myself to keep staying aggressive. I’ve taken over games before, so I just needed to stay confident and stay on the attack.”
Still, Michigan found itself down just two points with four seconds remaining, but a pair of Koenig free throws with 14 seconds on the clock sealed the deal for Wisconsin’s 17th-straight home victory. Michigan senior guard Zak Irvin scored a game-high 20 points to lead the Wolverines, and fellow senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. provided 15 points.
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With the game tied at 43 and 7:13 left, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rockman nailed a 3-pointer and Duncan Robinson followed suit on the Wolverines’ next possession, giving them a 49-43 lead with 6:29 remaining. But Wisconsin countered with a 6-0 run to tie the game, in which Koenig finished off two tough layups on the two possessions before he began connecting from three.
Trailing 38-30 with 12:40 left, UW freshman guard D’Mitrik Trice stepped to the foul line and made his first attempt. He missed the second, but redshirt-sophomore forward Ethan Happ (11 points) crashed the boards for an offensive rebound and fed a wide-open Trice for a corner three to make it 38-34.
UW head coach Greg Gard said staying within striking distance gave his team the confidence to come from behind and avoid the upset.
“Irvin got hot for a little bit, played really for them,” Gard said. “But to be able to get enough stops [was big], I thought Trice’s three was really big.”
A tough bucket inside from Hayes cut the lead to two before Michigan coach John Beilein called timeout. Robinson drilled a three to put the Wolverines up 41-36. A Happ and-one tied it at 43 with 8:17 left.
For a while, Michigan could not lift the lid off the basket, suffering a nearly nine-minute drought without a field goal and just two points that carried from the first half into the second half. Yet, they tailed Wisconsin by just five at halftime and used a 17-2 run to lead 38-30, before Trice’s four-point possession woke up the Badger offense.
While the offensive output down the stretch provided for an exciting finish, the first half was anything but that, as Michigan did not make a shot after Abdur-Rockman’s 3-pointer tied the game at 19 with 7:11 remaining in the first half. Free throws from Moritz Wagner (10 points) accounted for the rest of the Wolverines’ first-half points. It wasn’t until the 18:15 mark in the second half when Michigan finally bought a bucket, and then some, cueing up their 7-0 run to tie the game.
Only four Badgers scored through the game’s first 20 minutes. Vitto Brown scored nine of his 11 points in the frame. Wisconsin shot just 38 percent (11-for-29 and 2-for-9 from three) from the field, but Michigan’s poor shot selection restricted them to just eight made field goals on 25 attempts. UW’s 16-6 edge on points in the paint proved as the difference-maker in the first half, and UW finished outscoring Michigan 32-16 in the paint.
The win moved Wisconsin into a tie for first place in the Big Ten with Maryland. Through the first three weeks of conference play, UW and Maryland stand as the only teams with one Big Ten loss.
“Everyone is beating everyone,” Hayes said. “It’s nothing we really worry about. We just worry about my guys in our locker room and make sure we take care of business on our end. We knew they were going to be a tough game, actually tougher in some aspects than we thought. That’s what we expect in the Big Ten.”