Basketball is fickle. Sometimes, like last Tuesday against Purdue, your opponent drills 14-of-22 threes and you lose by 28. Other nights, if you’re Brevin Pritzl, you hear your coach yelling at you to shoot the ball before the shot clock expires, so you pull up and bank in a tightly contested 23-footer.
That was the kind of night Wisconsin (3-4 Big Ten, 10-10 overall) had against Illinois (0-7, 10-10) Friday night at the Kohl Center as the Badgers connected on 53.1 percent of their shots and hit not one, but two shot clock buzzer-beating threes on their way to a 75-50 clubbing of the Fighting Illini.
Through six conference games, the Badgers had a margin of victory — really, a margin of defeat — of -8.3 points per game. But everything went right against Illinois, as UW led for nearly 38 minutes and never was in jeopardy of falling at the feet of another Big Ten bottom feeder.
Offensively, the Badgers moved the ball around the court with ease, finding open shooters and cutters ad nauseum in the weak spots of the Illini defense.
“Illinois tries to speed you up a lot and after watching film of what other teams were doing, we looked at what teams that they went to overtime with did poorly and then we looked at teams that got them and did well,” redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ said. “So we just tried to have poise and make the smart pass.”
Much of that smart passing went either through or to Happ and junior forward Khalil Iverson, who combined to score 29 points on 12-of-17 shooting with eight assists. On three separate occasions, Iverson snuck backdoor and Happ fed him the ball out of a double team for an easy dunk or layup.
Iverson, normally not a ball handler, was forced to take on some of the offensive responsibility when freshman guard Brad Davison was relegated to the bench with two early fouls. Head coach Greg Gard had hoped that sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice would be back in action by Friday night, but he remained on the sidelines recovering from foot surgery. Despite the circumstances, though, Iverson performed admirably and managed to keep the offense calm and poised.
“Giving him that opportunity and allowing him to be in that position, there potentially could be a lot of positive things, which there were,” Gard said. “He did a good job of taking advantage of his opportunities.”
Davison, who picked up two early offensive fouls in the game’s first three minutes, remained aggressive despite the whistles and drove to the basket at will in the second half. He took 10 free throws, more than the entire Illinois team, and sank each one, finishing with a game-high 18 points despite just six field goal attempts and three field goal makes.
Freshman forward Nate Reuvers provided a defensive spark, swatting a career-high five shots in just 16 minutes. The Lakeville, Minn., native has made tremendous strides over the course of the season, and continues to confound opposing players with his length.
“His progression from back in late October when we scrimmaged Missouri, to when I couldn't keep him on the floor, to where he is now has been — I don't know if I've seen a kid come that far in that short a time,” Gard said.
The win over Illinois was likely UW’s most impressive of the season, as the Badgers fired on all cylinders and clicked in every aspect of the game. Illini head coach Brad Underwood had nothing but praise for UW’s performance.
“I haven’t been a part of too many shellackings like this, but they were terrific tonight,” he said.