It's hard not to look sloppy and sometimes foolish against Northwestern's signature 1-3-1 defense, but thanks to a strong first half, No. 14 Wisconsin (10-5 Big Ten, 20-7 overall) was able to hold on and top the Wildcats 70-63.
A lead that was as high as 14 in the second half shrunk to one after Northwestern junior guard Michael Thompson slashed into the lane and managed to get an easy layup. With three minutes remaining and the Badgers up 62-61, they needed to do one thing, protect the ball.
On Wisconsin's next possession the Wildcats (6-9 Big Ten, 17-10 overall) sent sophomore guard Jordan Taylor to the line. He knocked down both, and following a missed layup by NU sophomore forward John Shurna on the other end, a scrum for the rebound resulted in junior forward Jon Leuer with a chance at the charity stripe. It was one of few mistakes by Shurna, who led Northwestern with 26 points on 9-of-17 shooting.
Leuer, back for only his second game since wrist surgery, still had some cobwebs to shake loose. He missed three consecutive free throws with a chance to put the game away, but made up for it by blocking Thompson's layup with 11 seconds remaining.
""The block was just trying to make up for all those free throws I missed. I don't know what I was thinking there,"" Leuer said. ""I just felt I had to make a play, and I saw Thompson penetrate, and I felt I could get over there quick enough, and I did.""
Leuer finished with 11 points on 3-of-5 shooting and four rebounds in 22 minutes.
The Wildcats went on to miss their final three shots. Wisconsin sealed the victory with two made free throws by senior guard Jason Bohannon and then two more from senior guard Trevon Hughes.
The Badgers' incredibly hot start forced Northwestern's head coach Bill Carmody to shift around his defensive strategy. Wisconsin shot 75 percent in the first half, its highest single-half shooting percentage of the year.
""We started out in a match-up, and they hit their first nine shots, so we had to change that,"" Carmody said. ""We played some 1-3-1 in the first half, and they still made about half of them. I thought we just needed to be a little more aggressive coming from the wings, from [Drew] Crawford and Shurna.""
Carmody adjusted by extending the 1-3-1 to put more pressure on Hughes, Bohannon and Taylor. The Badgers had nine turnovers in the second half alone, a number they usually have for an entire game.
""That was the best I've seen Northwestern play its half-court defense,"" head coach Bo Ryan said. ""They were reading well, they were flying, they were very attentive to detail. They're better at that now.""
The hot shooting hit a serious rut in the second half, mainly because of the Wildcats' stingy defense. The Badgers shot just 26 percent but hit 23 of 26 free throws, which allowed them to maintain control.
Wisconsin has seen a few of its double-digit leads erased before, most notably the lead it had against Illinois.
Bohannon continued his elite level of play from the last five games. He hasn't been held to under 15 points since the close loss at Purdue Jan. 28 and finished with 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting to lead the team.
""Wisconsin is a tough team. They had a nice lead on us,"" Carmody said. ""They were playing extremely well, and usually teams make runs, and they were able to hold us off.""