WASHINGTON — In the games leading up to No. 24 Wisconsin’s (12-6 Big Ten, 24-8 overall) 66-59 loss to Northwestern (10-8, 23-10) in mid-February, the Badgers had been playing with fire.
While UW had won eight games in a row, in its wins over Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois and Rutgers, Wisconsin pulled out victories not because of its offense, but in spite of it.
Against the Wildcats, the Badgers finally got burned. Northwestern out-executed a lethargic Wisconsin team and while UW surrendered only 66 points, it couldn’t overcome yet another poor offensive performance as it fell 66-59.
Saturday in the semifinal of the Big Ten Tournament, the Badgers will have their chance to avenge that loss.
“We’re gonna come out and play how we’ve been playing these past few games,” freshman point guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “Come out with energy, excitement and play together as one unit and one team.”
While the Badgers limped into their matchup against the Wildcats just over a month ago, Wisconsin has regained the gusto that it had early in the season.
After shooting 55.6 percent from 3-point range against Minnesota last Sunday, the Badgers shot 45.5 percent from deep against Indiana Friday night.
Five players scored in double-figures in UW’s 70-60 victory over the Hoosiers and the Badgers held an Indiana team that scored 95 points Thursday night against Iowa to only 60 points.
“They have one of the best players in the league in Ethan Happ, and then Nigel [Hayes] and Bronson [Koenig] are also really good players in this league,” junior Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh said. “So we got our work cut out for us.”
Koenig was dealing with a nagging leg injury when the two teams met in February, but he has rebounding to lead the Badgers in scoring in each of the last two games.
Northwestern is also healthier than they were when the teams first met in February. The Wildcats’ second-leading scorer, junior guard Scottie Lindsey, missed the team’s first meeting with UW due to illness. Against Maryland Friday night, Lindsey led NU with 17 points.
But that’s not the only change that the Wildcats have undergone.
“I think we’re taking the ball to the basket a lot more,” redshirt sophomore Northwestern guard Vic Law said. “We have a lot more points in the paint. Our defense is becoming a lot more compact. We’re not letting players go on these momentous runs.”
The Badgers have also grown in their time since that meeting. “Defensively we got refocused on what was important. I think it was that identity coming back, specifically on the defensive end. The energy, how hard we played, those types of things,” head coach Greg Gard said after Friday’s victory.
Last time the Badgers met the Wildcats, UW was less than 72 hours removed from a grueling overtime victory against Nebraska. Saturday, the Badgers will play Northwestern less than 24 hours after knocking off Indiana. They’ll be looking for revenge.
“It’s win or go home,” Trice said. “So we’re just going out there and giving it all we can,”
The Badgers tip off against Northwestern Saturday at 2:30 p.m. from the Verizon Center.