Mondays with Rasty: Seniors give Badger fans glimmer of hope, for now

Bronson Koenig went on a shooting tear to seal Wisconsin's victory. 

“I feel like we can run the table, I really do,” said Nigel Hayes, maybe.

Well perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, but Badgers fans, coaches and players alike all had to let out a huge collective sigh of relief after Wisconsin’s convincing 66-49 win over Minnesota Sunday.

The victory snapped a three-game skid for UW and a brutal stretch of basketball where it had lost five of six. Just a few weeks ago, even though they weren’t playing all that well, it looked like the Badgers were extremely well positioned to capture at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title. Of course, the bottom then fell out on them and they entered Sunday having not yet clinched a double bye in the conference tournament.

Meanwhile, the Gophers came to Madison riding an eight-game winning streak and looking like the class of the Big Ten. There was a strong possibility of Wisconsin having its Senior Day spoiled by its archrival, leaving the team in a state of total disarray as the postseason arrived.

Instead, the Badgers turned in a brilliant second-half performance—thanks in no small part to the four men playing in their final game at the Kohl Center—to turn aside Minnesota and give themselves a desperately-needed confidence boost.

After spending almost the entirety of the first half on the bench with two fouls, Bronson Koenig went off in the second half. He scored a game-high 17 points and buried five 3-pointers, including triples on three straight possessions in the game’s closing minutes to put the win on ice. Nigel Hayes scored 12 points, grabbed five rebounds, hit a timely 3-pointer and was huge for Wisconsin in the post on a day where Ethan Happ was far from his best. Zak Showalter also added 12 points, a couple triples and treated the home crowd to a couple patented Zak Showalter plays one final time. And Vitto Brown, whose shooting woes this season are well documented, splashed a 3-pointer of his own and nearly blew the roof of the Kohl Center with a thunderous dunk.

The offense looked sharp and the defense was suffocating, allowing the Badgers to outscore the Gophers 39-20 in the second half to clinch the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

Instead of Senior Day being overshadowed by yet another disappointing loss, Hayes, Koenig, Showalter and Brown were able to take their curtain calls to the raucous standing ovation they all deserved for their contributions to one of the most successful stretches in Wisconsin basketball history.

Now, their attention turns to the postseason, where they will try to add one final chapter to their prolific careers at UW.

Obviously the win over Minnesota doesn’t suddenly make all the issues that have plagued the team for well over a month disappear. There are still plenty of questions surrounding the Badgers and reasons to be skeptical of them making much of a run in the NCAA Tournament, some of which we still saw glimpses of Sunday.

The offense scored a woeful 0.794 points per possession in the first half with Koenig on the bench for nearly 15 minutes. They missed several bunnies close to the rim. They benefitted big time from Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy playing only 14 minutes all game due to constant foul trouble. They gave up far too many second-chance opportunities on defense. And though the Badgers were an impressive 55.6 percent from 3-point range, they were an absolutely abysmal 37.5 percent from the free-throw line. I have absolutely no idea when Wisconsin’s season will end, but I’d be willing to bet that when it does, it’s due in large part to missing a bunch of free throws down the stretch of a game.

This is still a team with clear flaws that could lead them to early exits in the Big Ten and/or NCAA Tournaments. But at the very least, Sunday’s second half reminded fans why this team entered the season with such high expectations in the first place.

All they can do now is sit back and wait to see if this was the start of the Badgers turning things around, or if it merely was a brief detour from their end-of-season slide.

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