The University of Wisconsin’s men’s basketball rebounded in a major way as the 2017 seniors lead the Badgers to a 66-49 finish over rival University of Minnesota, Twin Cities in a critical game with postseason seeds at stake.
Minnesota (23-8, 11-7 Big Ten) and Wisconsin (23-8, 12-6 Big Ten) were locked in a tie for third place in the Big Ten standings with the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament on the line after No. 16 Purdue downed Northwestern 69-65 in West Lafayette.
While both teams came into Sunday’s Border Battle boasting identical conference records, Wisconsin and Minnesota had been heading in completely opposite directions during the month of February.
The Badgers had dropped five of their last six games, and came crawling into the Kohl Center for the season finale on the tail end of a three-game losing streak. On the other hand, the Gophers were looking to make Wisconsin the next name on their eight-game winning streak list.
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Wisconsin Player of the Game: Nigel Hayes
Wisconsin’s senior force showed off in the early minutes of Sunday’s season finale. After senior guard Zak Showalter opened the Badgers’ offensive attack with a 3-pointer, Nigel Hayes followed suit by scoring the team’s next 5 consecutive points.
Hayes was the driving force for the majority of the second half, and certainly turned the tide for the Badgers down the stretch with key buckets when his team needed them most. The fourth-leading scorer in Wisconsin history ended his final home appearance with 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting, along with six rebounds and three assists.
Minnesota Player of the Game: Nate Mason
Gophers junior guard Nate Mason was a large part of the reason why Minnesota was able to take a 2-point lead into the half Sunday. Mason shot 50 percent from the floor with a game-high 11 points in the first 20 minutes.
Even as his starting teammates began riding the pine thanks to foul trouble, the veteran scoring threat put up a valiant effort to keep Minnesota in the game late in the second half as he Badgers started to run away with it. Mason put up 17 points – tied for the game-high total with Bronson Koenig – and four rebounds the season finale.
Unsung Hero: Ethan Happ
Despite the senior push in the second half that gave Wisconsin the edge, it was sophomore Ethan Happ who towed the line in the first half. Amid the lights and celebration of his senior teammates, Happ took control of the first half for the Badgers after the Wisconsin offense fell off a cliff.
With just under eight minutes remaining in the half, Wisconsin was shooting an abysmal 25 percent from the floor (5-for-20), and 14 percent from three (1-for-7). Happ added seven rebounds and three assists in the first half, carrying the Badgers’ veteran core until senior forward Vitto Brown stepped into a three ball to bring UW within 1 point of the Gophers at the six-minute mark.
As Happ’s veteran teammates finally came to life on the offensive end during the second half, his offensive production leveled and he finished the night with nine points, 13 rebounds and five assists.
Honorable Mention: Vitto Brown
The senior starter brough six rebounds and three assists to the table. The timing and reaction to both of Brown’s two buckets unleashed an incredibly energizing wave of cheers from the fans at critical moments in the game.
“He was active, he smiled, he was having fun, he was enjoying it,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said. “He ran the floor in transition, he was really engaged, and everybody brought energy to it [the team effort]. Just a terrific team win and I’m happy for Vitto.”
Struggling from beyond the arc in the last few games, Brown stepped into a 3-pointer and nailed it (3-for-13 in last 13 attempts) after missing his first two to bring the Badgers within one point of the Gophers late in the first half.
Brown’s shot brought a nervous Kohl Center to life as the arena erupted in cheers and Minnesota head coach Rick Pitino was forced to call for timeout.
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Despite the Badgers 18-2 run in the early moments of the second half, Minnesota quietly cut the lead back to only six points at 51-46 late in the second. But at the 3:30 mark, Wisconsin’s Hayes got a contested turnaround, one-hander to fall from just outside the paint as the referee signaled for an and-one foul. The bucket gave the Badgers breathing room with a double-digit, 55-45 lead as the crowd roared in support behind the home team.
When you knew it was over
The game may have been all but decided after watching Koenig rattle home a deep triple to give the Badgers a 13-point lead with just more than three minutes remaining, but the game was over after the senior guard nailed two more 3-pointers to end the game on back-to-back-to-back bombs from beyond the arc.
“He knows he’s a good shooter, and good shooters – even through tough times – have to maintain that confidence,” Gard said.
With 3:04 remaining, Koenig was shooting 2-for-5 from beyond the arc with 8 points. Less than 68 seconds later, Koenig was the Badgers leading scorer (17 points) and shooting 62.5 percent from downtown.
“He’s continued to grow and become a better leader as he’s gone through his career here,” Gard said.
Koenig broke the school record for most made 3-pointers (242) against Ohio State last week during a 27-point performance, and climbed to 17th on UW’s all-time individual scoring list.
Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard
“The second half, I thought we were terrific at times. The grittiness, the toughness, that was us.”
“I’m happy for our seniors because they really rallied together to get through this.”
“We talked about being more aggressive in transition, but defensively I thought that was as good as we’ve been in a long time.”
“Countless contributions from everybody, it was fun to watch.”
Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino
“I thought we did not play an intelligent game today.”
“It was tough to get a flow offensively, I think from everybody.”
“I thought we had more fun in this game than we’ve had in a long time.”
“I just told myself to keep staying aggressive, to keep shooting. I mean I guess that’s just what I do, I close games out,” Koenig said with a chuckle and a smile.
“It’s good to come out with this win, but it shows how good of a team we are. We lost nearly every damn game in February and we finished second [in the Big Ten regular season standings].”
“We knew if we kept playing the same kind of defense that we did during that losing streak, then the streak would have continued.”
“We just never gave up on each other when we were playing like trash and garbage, respectfully.”