For the previous three games, the Badgers had been living dangerously. They recovered after falling behind Northwestern in the second half and survived a disastrous start against Michigan, but on Sunday it looked like that lifestyle had caught up to them.
Down 16 with 11 minutes left in the game against Penn State, it appeared the Badgers were finished against the worst team in the Big Ten.
But in the Kohl Center, the gap between appearing finished and actually being finished is pretty wide.
No. 18 Wisconsin (6-2 Big Ten, 16-4 overall) roared back against the Nittany Lions (0-7, 8-11), pulling out a thrilling 79-71 overtime victory. The Badgers needed two big runs after the break to earn the largest second half comeback since 1982.
""We have tough young men that will just go toe to toe with you for 40 and go another five if you have to,"" Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. ""It's just the young men that we have that can make something like that happen when it seems like everything is going the other way.""
A jumper from junior forward David Jackson gave Penn State a 52-36 lead, and it seemed like the Badgers, who had struggled offensively to that point, would see an end to their home court perfection against unranked teams under Ryan. And then the Badgers found their rhythm.
First, senior point guard Trevon Hughes hit a shot from beyond the arc, and then senior guard Jason Bohannon forced a turnover and took it down court himself for a lay-up. Wisconsin's roll kept going, and finally junior forward Keaton Nankivil capped off the 15-0 run with a long jump shot off a kick out from sophomore guard Jordan Taylor.
Turnovers were key to the Badgers' resurgence as they forced 18, the second most by a Wisconsin opponent this year.
""We were playing some good defense and we forced them into some things they didn't want to do,"" Bohannon said. ""I thought we did a good job of forcing them to areas that they didn't want to be at and it led to a turnover.""
But Penn State answered as junior guard Talor Battle ripped off six of his game-high 28 points and a dunk by junior forward Andrew Ott silenced a crowd that was raucous moments earlier. The Badgers were down eight with two minutes left, but Taylor, who had been ice cold for the last four games, brought the crowd back to life.
He scored the next eight, forcing an overtime where Wisconsin finally seemed to take control. The final dagger came when Hughes pulled up and released a long, fading two pointer as the shot clock read two. The arena went quiet for a moment and the only sound was the faint tweet of a whistle. Then the ball slid through the net and the crowd exploded.
Hughes dropped in the free throw to put his team up eight, and they never looked back.
The Badger attack, usually known for using post play as a central principle, had to shift to more of a drive-and-kick style which was apparent during the comeback. Ryan played four guards along with Nankivil for the last 15 minutes of the game, when the offense finally got going.
""You just have to keep searching. You just have to understand that sometimes things aren't going to fit,"" Ryan said. ""[UW's players] just stayed within themselves. We needed to attack the lanes a little better, attack the block ... When people take away one thing, you have to find another, and we did.""
The Badgers hit five 3-pointers in the last ten minutes of regulation, but for much of the game were forced to contend with a defense that threw out multiple zone and man-to-man looks to keep the Badgers off rhythm.
""They were taking us off the dribble late, driving, kicking and playing, and we didn't contain the ball,"" Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis said. ""We can't let 3 [Hughes] and 11 [Taylor] penetrate and find 12 [Bohannon] ... The first 35 minutes we did kind of what we wanted to do, and the last five we just didn't do it.""
That offense has struggled early in contests recently and Wisconsin has shot a lower percentage than its opponents in each of the last six games. The players and coaches noted that the team has been doing other things, like offensive rebounding against Northwestern or forcing a high number of turnovers Sunday afternoon, to compensate for off shooting nights.
""We should get the ball in the paint a little more through penetration, but we've been getting good looks. Maybe we're forcing too many 3s, but the majority of those are good shots, we just haven't been hitting them,"" Bohannon said. ""It's just a matter of us hitting them. We just have to keep grinding it out and doing whatever we need to do to get a victory.""
So much for living dangerously.