"We'd rather beat them next week, anyways."
That was the message Brad Davison gave to his teammates after the Wisconsin Badgers’ (7-11 Big Ten, 14-17 overall) 68-63 loss to No. 2 Michigan State (16-2, 28-3) on Senior Day Sunday afternoon.
In the team’s final game of the regular season, Davison exploded for a career-high 30 points, the most by a Wisconsin freshman since 1996. Head coach Greg Gard said that the young guard’s demeanor is “infectious,” and that, despite his youth, all the players look to him as an inspiration on and off the court.
“He speaks very well and he obviously says the right things, but just watch how he plays,” Gard said. “Watch how he competes.”
Davison opened the game with just seven first-half points and had worked his way up to 12 at the 13:59 mark of the second half. But then, trying to contest a Kenny Goins dunk, the freshman got his faulty left shoulder caught up and it popped out of its socket once again. He left the court and went straight to the locker room.
Two minutes later, Davison sprinted out of the locker room and checked into the game. He scored the Badgers’ next six points, each on deep, stepback jumpers, ultimately tying the game at 42 with 11:34 left to play.
“He ran by me to the scorers' table. I guess he was good to go. The trainers didn't stop me from putting him in,” Gard said. “His mentality and his approach and his competitiveness has become infectious and I think that's part of the reason why we've surged here. It's because his persona, his presence, is starting to infiltrate in other areas.”
Davison scored 23 second-half points and finished 10-of-18 from the floor along with a perfect 7-of-7 from the charity stripe. He spent much of the afternoon bailing UW out of poor possessions with deep, highlight-reel jump shots.
Davison’s brilliance wasn’t quite enough to match the Spartans’ relentlessly deep stable of weapons, though. Cassius Winston, normally MSU’s fourth offensive option, set Ab Nicholas court ablaze as he hit all six of his 3-point attempts to lead the Spartans with 20 points.
“Cassius Winston, from Christmas on, has been a good a player as we have,” MSU head coach Tom Izzo said. “He's made plays, he's improved his defense ... Give him a lot of credit.”
Nick Ward joined Winston in the offensive party, hitting 5-of-8 shots for 14 points. But he was the only member of the Spartans’ terrifying frontcourt trio of Ward, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges to get anything going on that end of the court.
.@braddavi34 scored a career-high 30 points but @BadgerMBB fell 68-63 to No. 2 Michigan State. @benpickman and @TommyValtin break down Wisconsin’s final regular season game in another edition of The Overtime: pic.twitter.com/tZ8YHbrlsr
— DailyCardinal Sports (@Cardinal_Sports) February 25, 2018
Bridges struggled more than almost anyone else in the building Sunday afternoon. After a smooth, two-handed dunk on the opening possession, he missed 10 consecutive shots, due in large part to the defensive presence of junior forward Khalil Iverson.
Redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ has described Iverson’s one-on-one defense of late as Nigel Hayes-esque, and that seemed particularly apt against Bridges. When finally Gard moved Iverson to Winston who, at that point, had flames spewing from his eyes, Bridges connected on back-to-back jumpers over redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford.
Iverson didn’t score on the night, but his defense on Bridges more than made up for it. He held the Spartans’ best offensive player to arguably the worst shooting night of his career as Bridges finished just 3-of-15 from the floor and 0-of-7 from distance.
Happ was the only other Badger to get anything going on the offensive end, but he was far from efficient. He scored 13 points on 19 shooting possessions, finishing 6-of-17 from the floor and just 1-of-5 from the free-throw line.
Though the Badgers are never happy after a loss, there is reason for optimism given the way they’ve played over the last 10 days. After dropping 7-of-8 games, UW upended then-No. 6 Purdue, survived Minnesota and Northwestern and nearly toppled No. 2 Michigan State on Sunday. Davison said that the rough patch prepared them to make a run down the stretch.
“As we've gotten into the season we've gotten better at playing with one another and holding each other accountable,” he said. “I think we became a lot closer as a unit through that struggle. It brought us closer together and that shows in our play.”
Now the slate is wiped clean as the Badgers turn their attention eastward to Madison Square Garden in New York, where the Big Ten Tournament presents their last hope at a coveted bid to the NCAA Tournament. They’ll face No. 8-seed Maryland Thursday at 11 a.m. CT and, should they win, they would get a third crack at the heavy-hitting Spartans.
“We control our own destiny. It's not college football, it's college basketball. The regular season is washed away,” Davison said. “This thing's far from over ... we've got a lot more basketball to play.”