Less than ten minutes after addressing the media following Wisconsin’s (3-7 Big Ten, 10-13 overall) 74-63 loss to Nebraska (8-4, 17-8), a visibly emotional Ethan Happ was back on the Kohl Center floor putting up free throws.
Happ, sporting a different pair of sneakers than the pair he played in earlier in the evening, was the lone Badger on the floor at the time. He looked as if he was searching for any kind of change, most obviously, better success at the free throw line and in turn, a different outcome.
On the night, Happ shot just 8-of-19 from the charity stripe and, while he scored a team-high 25 points, he failed to make a field goal in the game’s final 14:22. Even a last-ditch wide-open layup with just over a second to play in the game hit front iron. Down the stretch almost nothing went the redshirt junior’s way.
By no means was Wisconsin’s most disappointing defeat to date a sole result of Happ’s struggles in the final ten minutes of the game, rather, according to Greg Gard, UW struggled to adjust to Nebraska’s 1-3-1 zone in the game’s 9:59 final and its offensive woes translated into defensive lapses.
An 11-point lead with just under ten minutes to play quickly dwindled as a 30-8 run by the Cornhuskers to close the game silenced what at-times had been a raucous Kohl Center crowd. Nebraska’s leading scorer James Palmer Jr. found more open driving lanes as the game progressed en route to a game-high 28 points. UW’s 3-point attempts frequently failed to drop. Freshman point guard Brad Davison struggled to break the Cornhuskers’ press as he fouled out having scored only five points on four field goal attempts.
“To see how we played that first 30 minutes, that’s how we should play all the time,” redshirt senior Aaron Moesch said when relaying his coach’s message to the team after the game. “The last ten minutes is obviously how we shouldn’t play. If we put a complete game together, we’re walking out of here in a lot different mood.”
Wisconsin led for more than 17 minutes during the first half, but it needed a layup by Happ — his third-to-last field goal of the game — to lead just 32-30 after the game’s first twenty minutes. It capped off an 18-point first half for the redshirt junior and sent Davison into an enthused frenzy as he let out a major first pump and stormed onto the floor to high five his teammates as the halftime buzzer sounded.
Happ promptly opened the scoring in the second half as well, scoring a layup on the Badgers’ first possession to extend UW’s lead to four, but the Cornhuskers would never go away.
A 3-pointer by Moesch, the first of his Wisconsin career, gave UW a 10-point cushion with 12:46 to play. After a thundering dunk by Iverson less than two minutes later gave Wisconsin an 11-point lead, the Badgers seemed on track to snap their two-game conference losing streak.
But, a four possession sequence that featured three missed shots by Happ and a turnover by the bigman gave Nebraska new life and brought the margin to within only one point. Wisconsin remained ahead until the 5:25 mark of the period when a layup by the Cornhuskers’ Isaac Copeland tied the game. And UW would fail to make a field goal for the remainder of the contest as Nebraska eventually built its lead up to 11 points as the final buzzer sounded.
“Defensively I think we kinda let off the gas a little bit,” Happ said. “We played pretty well defensively for 30ish minutes and, like I said, just gotta execute all 40.”
On Sunday, before UW’s afternoon practice, former Wisconsin head coach Dick Bennett addressed the Badgers. According to multiple players, Bennett, the coach who took over a 13-14 Wisconsin team in 1995-’96 and jumpstarted the program's turnaround, spoke about the importance of resilience and remembering feelings of frustration as one achieves success.
“I think [the frustration] will make us appreciate more what’s to come,” Davison said following the practice.
But Monday night, as Wisconsin dropped its sixth game in its last seven tries, UW merely seemed frustrated. Gard said his team “can lament about it tonight,” but with Northwestern coming to town Thursday evening, it’ll need to show that resolve almost immediately.
“We got a quick turnaround,” Gard said. “We’ll learn about it tomorrow going through the film, and then gonna prepare quickly for Northwestern.”
And, as Moesch, the lone remaining participant in UW's two most recent Final Four teams said, "we aren't used to losing at home."