Nigel Hayes caught the ball on the Big Ten logo just below the foul line—as he had all night—and glanced at freshman guard D’Mitrik Trice on the wing. But instead of hitting Trice with a pass, he slipped the ball between two orange jerseys to redshirt sophomore forward Ethan Happ, who found himself wide open underneath for an easy one-handed jam.
The other 64 possessions were pretty similar in the No. 17 Badgers’ (6-2) effortless 77-60 win over No. 22 Syracuse (4-2) Tuesday night at the Kohl Center.
For the second straight season, Hayes, now a senior, had no trouble dismantling the Orange’s heralded 2-3 zone defense. He tallied 10 assists, easily a career-high, along with 11 rebounds on the night.
Hayes finished with nine points, though, falling just shy of just the second triple-double in Wisconsin history. Head coach Greg Gard left him in the game after the starters had been pulled to score one final point, but Hayes missed the front end of a 1-and-1 before collapsing in facetious despair.
“That was the hardest free throw of my life,” Hayes said. “I’m extremely distraught right now. I’m almost close to tears … To know that it was literally one free throw away, it just really hurt. That’s all I can say, I’m just really hurt and down in the dumps. Just sad.”
But Hayes’ night was a little better than he let on; the Badgers fed him the ball all night in the middle of Syracuse’s zone, where he dished passes out to open shooters on the perimeter and down low where Happ was waiting hungrily.
“Probably one thing that’s overlooked for him is his ability to pass and his vision,” Gard said. “He did, I thought, a very good job for the most part of really making good decisions. He just made things go. He made a difference.”
“I like to pass the ball more than score,” Hayes added. “I feel like after four years people should have caught on to that by now.”
Happ was the biggest beneficiary of Hayes’ keen eye, as he found himself on the receiving end of six of of those 10 assists, each time for an easy layup or dunk. The Milan, Ill., native finished with game-highs of 24 points, just a point short of his career-high, and 13 rebounds, six of which came on the offensive end. He was quick to shift any credit for his performance to the team leader, though.
“I mean, it’s Nigel,” he said. “You watch the tape, it’s him getting me the ball. The first time we played Syracuse, I should have had more than I did just because I didn’t finish around the rim. There were some easy ones, and I made it a point to try and finish more frequently.”
The forward had no trouble finishing around the rim Tuesday night, finishing 10-for-12 shooting nothing but layups and dunks. He barely left the paint against an Orange defense whose backline plays higher up than just about any team in the country.
Not to be outdone, senior guard Bronson Koenig turned in his best performance of the season, matching a career-high with six 3-pointers on 66.7 percent shooting from the behind the arc. After a miserable start to the season—he made just 24.5 percent of his deep shots in the Badgers’ first seven games—his jump shot looked better than ever as he nearly tore the net from the rim.
“I never lost faith in him because I know how good a player he is,” Gard said. “I’ve watched him practice and I’ve watched him put in time before practice, I watch him do extra shooting after practice. When you have a player that’s that well-established or that accomplished … That’s one thing you tell good shooters: shoot until you get hot.”
Koenig did just that, busting the game open in the early minutes of the second half with back-to-back threes. He let Hayes do all the distributive work while he quietly found openings in the defense to drill easy spot-up threes.
The win was the Badgers’ first over a ranked opponent this season, after falling to then-No. 22 Creighton and then-No. 4 North Carolina in the previous weeks. For the first time they looked like the team that earned a No. 8 ranking to open the year.
“Getting slapped around a little bit at Creighton and knocked around a little bit by North Carolina helped us expedite our process, helped us grow up a little bit, helped us mature,” Gard said. “I think we’re seeing, hopefully, a trend of being more consistent and doing a lot of positive things. They’ve definitely learned.”