INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.–Sometimes, you just dig a hole too deep to get out of, no matter how much scratching and clawing is attempted.
This was the experience for the Badgers (13-7 Big Ten, 26-7 overall), who saw their Big Ten tournament run come to the end as they were surprised by a finally-healthy Michigan State squad (14-6, 25-8).
Michigan State, once the No. 1-ranked team in the country, showed that their starting rotation is finally getting back in sync after collectively missing dozens of games. All five starters, along with junior guard Travis Trice, scored in double figures. As a team, they shot 29-for-51 (56.9 percent) from the field and 7-for-13 (53.8 percent) from 3-point range.
“They hit some shots. They made some jumpers. [Adreian] Payne starts out with a tough three. You've got to give them credit for the way they shot the ball,” head coach Bo Ryan said. “We did not do a very good job on our possessions. And they shot it real well to get a lot on theirs.”
Despite facing deep foul trouble down the stretch, senior forward Adreian Payne led the Spartans in scoring with 18 points in only 17 minutes.
Junior forward Branden Dawson, who missed nine games with a broken right hand, continued a strong tournament run. He finished with 14 points and seven rebounds, while scoring one of the most important baskets of the game.
With only one second left on the shot clock and about five minutes left in the game, Dawson grabbed a lob over freshman forward Nigel Hayes’ head and made a surprise lay-up to help extend a Spartan lead that was in trouble.
The Spartan defense gave the Badgers nightmares throughout the first half, causing them to shoot 7-for-25 (28.0 percent). The Spartans were relentless on defense, swarming the ball and forcing bad decisions and bad shots.
The only player who showed offensive life in the first half for Wisconsin was junior center Frank Kaminsky, who ultimately registered 28 points on 9-for-16 shooting and 8-for-8 from the free throw line.
“We dug ourselves a hole in the first half, and we were trying to climb out of that hole the whole second half,” Kaminsky said. “We just didn’t have enough left in the tank at the end to get over that.”
As the second half opened, the Badgers were able to open up the scoring, as every starter except junior guard Josh Gasser (who scored nine) reached double figures in points.
As a team, Wisconsin shot 15-for-25 in the second half and slowly inched back to a competitive margin.
Unfortunately for UW, Michigan State was able to continue scoring and protect the ball even when surrounded, escaping from multiple traps with timeouts and drawing fouls.
“When you’re down 17 at half against a really good team, it’s tough to get out of,” Gasser said. “We fought, we scrapped to try to get ourselves back, and just couldn’t quite get out of it.”
A very real problem for Wisconsin was an almost total lack of bench scoring. A day after combining to score 29 points against Minnesota, freshmen forward Nigel Hayes and guard Bronson Koenig combined for only three points on 0-for-8 shooting. The entire bench totaled for six points.
Michigan State will go on to play in-state rival Michigan for the Big Ten tournament title on Sunday.
The Badgers will go home to Madison for Selection Sunday, where they are projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi to draw a No. 2 seed thanks to their impressive non-conference resume. They will also hope to draw Milwaukee’s Bradley Center as a second and third round site to create a solid home-court advantage.
This is a team that could be more tournament ready than of Bo Ryan’s past teams, at least according to one notable coach.
“They run, they score. They’ve got times when they’ve got five shooters on the floor. It is a hard team to defend,” head coach Tom Izzo said. “I told them after ’Let’s go to a Final Four,’ because they’re good enough. I really mean that.”