CHICAGO—Normally when a team makes just four of its first 28 shots against the No. 6 team in the country, it is going to finish on the losing end. But if there is one thing we have learned about the 2012-’13 edition of Wisconsin men’s basketball, it is that they are anything but normal. Despite scoring just 17 points in the first half, the Ke$ha-loving Badgers (22-10 overall) found a second gear after halftime and put up 51 points over the final 20 minutes en route to a 68-59 victory over the Wolverines to advance to the Big Ten tournament semi-final round.
Coming off arguably their worst three-game stretch of the season, the Badgers looked destined for yet another lopsided defeat when the Wolverines (26-7) jumped out to a 16-6 lead with 7:10 left in the first half. But after just three field goals over the first 13-plus minutes, UW finally showed signs of life during the closing stretch of the half. The Badgers have struggled in that stage of the games as of late, but Friday they embarked on an 11-4 run to pull within 3 at the break, capped off by a last-second three from sophomore guard Traevon Jackson.
“That was definitely big for us,” redshirt senior forward Jared Berggren said of Jackson’s shot. “I think he blew the lid off the thing then and we carried [that momentum] into the second half.”
After struggling to get into anything resembling an offensive rhythm since a win over Nebraska Feb. 26, Wisconsin finally made a conscientious effort to work the ball inside as the second half got underway. Although Berggren was unable to find the basket on three short looks during UW’s first two possessions out of the break, Wisconsin continued to feed the ball inside until it finally began to pay off. While redshirt senior forward Ryan Evans finished just 4-of-12 from the field, he was a key component to the Badgers’ offensive explosion, taking advantage of a mismatch inside while being guarded by Michigan freshman forward Glenn Robinson III.
“Whenever you can get good looks, it’s going to be easier to put the ball in the hoop,” freshman forward Sam Dekker said. “To start the second half we got it inside into Ryan and he made some good plays and good kick outs, and that really got us going.”
As Wisconsin began to establish a post presence with Evans and Berggren, its perimeter shooting finally began to turn around. After shooting just 17.2 percent from the field in the first half, the Badgers exploded to the tune of 60.7 percent over the final 20 minutes, including a 6-of-9 effort from 3-point range.
“Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren got on the block and made some plays for us,” senior forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “Not only finishing around the bucket but then kicking it out and hitting guys stepping into open 3s.”
Bruesewitz was a key part of that turnaround in the second half. After hitting on just five of his last 34 attempts from 3-point range, the St. Paul, Minn., native knocked down two huge 3s in the second half that helped cushion the Wisconsin lead and keep momentum firmly on the Badgers’ side. Bruesewitz finished with eight points and eight rebounds in 30 minutes of play, his best performance in a long stretch of time.
“I love when Mikey’s making shots, because when hess making shots his energy is double what it already is,” junior guard Ben Brust said. “Whenever he gets going it helps us as a team.”
On the strength of that early barrage from 3-point range, UW built a 56-45 lead as Michigan called a timeout with just 5:53 left. Out of the timeout, Berggren picked up his fourth foul and was forced to the bench in favor of sophomore forward Frank Kaminsky. With Berggren on the bench, Michigan embarked on a 9-0 run to pull within two as the Badgers called a timeout of their own with 3:35 on the game clock.
After Jackson missed a long jumper, Brust kept the UW possession alive by establishing position underneath and forcing a foul on Michigan freshman guard Spike Albrecht. Out of the media timeout, Wisconsin looked flustered, eventually leaving the ball in Kaminsky’s hands with the shot clock running down. Despite nearly turning it over, Kaminsky got into the lane and found an opening, the shot benefitting from a soft bounce on the rim before falling through the net for undoubtedly the biggest two points of the game.
“He showed up,” Brusewitz said. “In tournament games [the deciding factor is] always that one guy who comes to play that you don’t expect.
Kaminsky’s shot marked the final time Michigan would threaten the lead, as the Badgers finished the game on a 13-5 run following the last media timeout. The Lisle, Ill., native finished with eight points and two rebounds in his homecoming, providing the Badgers with the boost they needed with Berggren on the bench.
With Michigan now in the rearview mirror, the Badgers have a quick turnaround before they face No. 3 Indiana at 12:40 p.m. Saturday. Though UW has beaten Indiana in 11 straight contests, the Hoosiers are a consensus No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and, as Big Ten regular season champions, will enter the game as heavy favorites.
But this is a Wisconsin team that has shown an ability to make possible the seemingly impossible throughout the season. Having put a late season slide behind them, the Badgers are certainly ready for the challenge.
“I think we grew up a lot today,” Dekker said. “When you feel what it’s like to taste victory, it makes you so much more confident.”
If Wisconsin can maintain that confidence throughout the 40 minutes of action tomorrow, we may just have a Big Ten Tournament final matchup that no one expected to see.