After No. 20 Michigan’s (9-5 Big Ten, 20-7 overall) win over Wisconsin (4-10, 11-16), Wolverine head coach John Beilein said that one of, if not the most important point of his team’s defensive gameplan was to prevent Badger redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ from scoring 40 points.
Happ finished with 29 points, 11 below Beilein’s target, and Wisconsin, as a team, lost by that very same margin, 83-72.
But despite Happ’s interior dominance, Wisconsin struggled to bring the contest to within striking distance. The Badgers spotted the Wolverines a 13-point lead just over six minutes into the game, mostly, according to head coach Greg Gard, due to breakdowns in defensive principles and struggles around the rim on offense. And UW’s early struggles proved costly.
“Every time we made a mistake, they made us pay, which is what they typically do” Gard said.
Gard wasn’t surprised by Michigan’s ability to capitalize, however, as he knew coming in that UM’s offensive weapons would pose a serious problem.
Duncan Robinson and Moritz Wagner broke loose for 22 combined first half points, missing only two of their 11 first half field goals as the Wolverines doubled the Badgers’ score and led 44-22 at halftime.
Coming out of the locker room, the teams would trade baskets, with Wisconsin struggling to mount a comeback. It took almost seven minutes, before the Kohl Center faithful finally experienced a run worth cheering about.
A quick 12-0 spurt, that lasted just under five minutes starting at the 11:46 mark sent an arena dying for something to get excited over into euphoria. Freshman guard Brad Davison and the rest of the Badgers on the bench during the run stood and cheered after every made basket. When there were stoppages in play, they sprinted out onto the floor to greet their teammates.
But, by the time that UW decided to claw back into the contest, it was trailing by 23 points. Its valiant second half effort temporarily raised he spirits of those in the arena Sunday afternoon, but Wisconsin’s early deficit was too large to overcome.
“Proud of how they battled back, but we gotta get better with how we start,” Gard said.
In Wisconsin’s most recent home game — a 60-52 loss to Northwestern — UW fell behind 18-1 just minutes into the contest. But following a road win at Illinois, the Badgers expected to come out Sunday and perform far better.
Instead, it was more of the same.
“I don’t think you every really expect to come out flat,” Davison said. “It’s something we need to work on, it’s something we need to change earlier in the week.”
Gard said afterward that Wisconsin shot only five-of-15 from in the paint in the game’s first 20 minutes. He added that missed layups not only hurt UW on offense, but led to easy Wolverine opportunities on the other end.
With just over six minutes to play in the first half, for example, redshirt freshman Aleem Ford missed a layup, then missed his own tip-in, allowing Michigan to regain possession. As Ford jogged back to the defensive end, he twice scratched his head in confusion. 18 seconds later, Michigan’s point guard Charles Matthews nailed a jumper to stretch UM’s lead to 20 for the first time all night.
The Badgers eventually sliced the Wolverines’ lead to as a little as seven points. But it took until there was only 2:37 remaining for UW to trail by single digits.
Happ was the game’s high scorer with 29, but Michigan had three players score at least 15 points, and it took almost 40 minutes for either Davison or redshirt sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl to break double figures.
After the game, Beilein said he was proud of how his team guarded Happ. He didn’t reach 40 points after all. And a big first half cushion gave Michigan a lead too large for Wisconsin to overcome.