Even after transforming a 27-tally deficit into a four-point affair, Greg Gard’s Wisconsin Badgers (17-14, 9-11 Big Ten) dropped their first round Big Ten tournament contest 65-57 to Chris Holtmann’s Ohio State Buckeyes (14-18, 5-15) in Chicago, Illinois.
The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, which had not secured consecutive victories in over two months, played its first opening day contest at the Big Ten tournament since 2000. With an array of March Madness implications on the line, the Badgers certainly needed to capture a first-round victory to increase the likelihood of capturing a bid to the Big Dance.
But with Ohio State’s recent momentum and 4-1 all-time record against Wisconsin in the conference tournament, Gard’s group would need to activate its offense early and often.
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Unfortunately for Wisconsin, throughout the first half, the Buckeyes looked like the 2017 Golden State Warriors while the Badgers mimicked the 1973 Philadelphia 76ers. Fueled by Bruce Thornton, Justice Sueing and Sean McNeil, Ohio State reached the painted area, baited UW into uncharacteristic turnovers and commanded the glass.
Not withstanding six early giveaways, the Buckeyes orchestrated a Durant-esque period of offensive efficiency. Over an eight-minute split, OSU nailed nine consecutive field goals to establish a 16-point advantage while the Badgers, as if on cue, suffered from multiple three-minute scoring droughts.
Wisconsin, notorious for its conservatism and execution down low, gift wrapped the Buckeyes four turnovers within the first 10 minutes and misfired on five layups. The Badgers certainly created makeable looks, but the cardinal and white could not shoot a beach ball into Lake Mendota.
“Seeing those shots not go in, it definitely played on us, and it affected our defense,” senior Tyler Wahl said in a post-game press conference. “We were not sound on defense. We just dug ourselves into a huge hole, and it was hard to come back from that.”
Like the ‘96 Bulls or ‘86 Celtics, OSU essentially dominated every facet of the match. The Buckeyes shot 68% from the floor, enjoyed a 16-9 rebounding margin and recorded five swipes. UW missed all seven of its looks from beyond the arc and amassed an abysmal 30% split from the hardwood. At the break, Ohio State held an 18-point edge with a score of 36-18.
Following intermission, Holtmann’s crew continued to apply offensive pressure from outside, inside and everywhere in between. Within five minutes of second half play, the Badgers faced a 27-point deficit – their largest discrepancy this season.
Wisconsin, though, would operate in an entirely different offensive stratosphere during the closing frame. Anchored by Wahl, the Badgers would conduct a 19-2 run over a nine minute stretch. Ohio State, with multiple freshmen inserted into its starting five, appeared flustered by UWs’ relentless defense and on-ball pressure.
Stout offensive rebounding, second chance opportunities, playoff intensity and senior leadership would propel Wisconsin to reshape its 27-point hole into just a four-tally deficiency. With emphasis on every possession, Wahl would score 10 straight points for his squad, but in the end, the Buckeyes’ tremendous first half proved too tough to overcome.
Regardless of the atrocious ball-handling in late-game situations, Ohio State conquered Wisconsin, 65-57, at the United Center.
Wednesday’s shortcoming marked the first time in program history UW lost on opening day at the Big Ten tournament. With the triumph, Ohio State sealed a second round matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes.
“By the time we had rallied and played with more aggressiveness, more physicality in the second half, obviously we had ourselves dug into way too deep of a hole,” Gard said in his post game press conference. “I thought the difference was the aggressiveness and the physicality they played with in the first half that we did not match.”
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For Wisconsin, Wahl spearheaded UW’s second half spurt. The senior registered 19 tallies, including 17 critical points in the closing frame, snared a team-best 10 boards and forced three Buckeye giveaways on the defensive end.
Connor Essegian poured in four field goals and seized eight rebounds as well. Chucky Hepburn, who accounted for just one score in the first half, finished the contest with six total points and four personal fouls. Wisconsin’s 7-footer, Steven Crowl, could not decipher Ohio State — the big man secured eight and seized just one Buckeye misfire in the painted area.
On the opposite side, Sean McNeil absolutely torched the Badgers at all three levels. The marksman nailed six of his eight field goal attempts and three long range snipes for 17 total points. Sueing, Ohio State’s smooth southpaw, canned five looks for 16 tallies and grabbed five rebounds in 32 minutes of action.
Thornton and Brice Sensabaugh, the Buckeyes’ sensational freshmen tandem, did not shy away from the national spotlight in the Madhouse on Madison. Thornton fronted the offensive onslaught with 15 points and Sensabaugh, a capable, brawny inside force, collected 11 rebounds alongside his four field goals.
Looking ahead, Wisconsin sits within striking distance of securing its 23rd NCAA Division I Tournament appearance in its past 24 campaigns. With quality wins against programs such as USC, Iowa, Marquette and Maryland on its resume, the committee will need to evaluate whether UW’s monumental opening will lift the cardinal and white into another chaotic March.
Badger faithful will learn the 125th anniversary team’s fate Sunday, March 12.