NEW YORK — With a split bottom lip, junior forward Khalil Iverson made what might have been the most important defensive play of Wisconsin’s season. The Badgers led by just three points with 5.6 seconds to go in the game. Maryland had possession of the basketball and a chance to potentially tie the score.
But Iverson, seconds after wiping a swatch of blood from his mouth, intercepted a lazy inbounds pass by the Terrapins’ Dion Wiley and hit a pair of free throws to ice the game away.
Freshman guard Brad Davison hugged redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ as Iverson walked to the line. When the buzzer sounded seconds later with UW ahead 59-54, the Badgers fans in attendance were euphoric as Wisconsin advanced to third round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Happ said after UW’s victory that a month ago, it might not have been able to win a game on the defensive end of the floor. He cited the Badgers’ close loss to Maryland as an example of why. That afternoon, they had too many defensive miscues and fouled too much, a troublesome combination to say the least.
But just over a month later, a lot of those holes have been patched up.
“A month ago, compared to now, we’re a completely different team, on the defensive end specifically,” redshirt senior Aaron Moesch said.
The No. 9 seed Badgers (8-11 Big Ten, 15-17 overall) forced nine steals in its win over the Terrapins. They held No. 8 seed Maryland (8-11, 19-13) to a season-low point total and stifled UMD from deep, allowing only two Terrapin 3-pointers. But more than anything else, Moesch said that the key to Wisconsin’s defense is that struggles on the offensive end have not translated to lapses on the other end of the floor.
“When we go a stretch in the game where we don’t get it done on the offensive end being able to fall back on your defense and knowing you’ll be able to get stops and stops, I think allows us to grow,” Moesch said.
As the regular season neared it conclusion, it was rare for head coach Greg Gard to not use the word “consistency” in a postgame press conference or post-practice media scrum.
During the Badgers’ mid-season struggles, a stretch where they lost eight games in nine tries, UW would often play 10 minutes stretches of stellar defense, but it also frequently took its foot off the gas on that end of the court.
In recent games, however, Wisconsin has looked more in-sync on the defensive end of the floor. It’s been far more consistent.
“We all have each other’s backs on the defensive end,” Iverson said. “If one guy makes a mistake, you can definitely count on your teammate to help you out.”
Iverson was not exempt from those mistakes Thursday afternoon. Neither was Davison or redshirt sophomore Brevin Pritzl as all three let Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan Jr. to score a combined 36 points.
But when it mattered most, the player that Happ has compared to being Nigel Hayes-esque on the defensive end came through in the clutch.
“He has the length and athleticism to guard a lot of different positions and that’s a big strength of his and a big tool for us,” assistant coach Dean Oliver said. “I’m just glad he came through right when we needed it and got that steal down the stretch.”