There are some moments in a team’s history that live forever in the memory of its fans and those of us fortunate enough to cover its games. Saturday at the Kohl Center, against one of the only two unbeatens remaining in the nation, Wisconsin’s basketball team delivered just such a moment.
After a month in which nothing seemed to go right for Wisconsin (4-3 Big Ten, 12-6 overall), nearly everything went right for the Badgers in a season-defining, 64-54 victory over previously-undefeated No. 2 Michigan (6-1, 17-1). Per usual, senior forward Ethan Happ led the way. In a signature performance, he scored 26 points to go with 10 rebounds and seven assists. He also knocked down a pair of big free throws at the end of the game, making Michigan pay for employing the “Hack-a-Happ” strategy that had worked so well for Minnesota on Jan. 3.
“They’re a really good team,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said. “Happ is not a preseason All-American, he’s a postseason All-American, he’s tremendous.”
In the waning moments, it seemed as if Wisconsin was fated to collapse, to fade down the stretch once more against a top conference opponent. A scene that had played out numerous times — full of mistakes, turnovers and missed opportunities — over the last several weeks seemed in the offing. Despite a tremendous defensive performance from Wisconsin, an air of futility hung over the sellout crowd at the Kohl Center.
On this occasion, however, there would be no collapse. An inflection point came with under eight minutes to go, when sophomore guard Brad Davison broke up an outlet pass, saving the ball from going out of bounds and enabling Happ to hit a layup to take the lead. Then Happ dove to the floor to save a loose ball, calling timeout as he tumbled to the hardwood. Out of the timeout, freshman swingman Kobe King knocked down a three. This re-energized the Badger faithful, who gave the team their full-throated support until the end.
“You have to make the extra effort plays,” head coach Greg Gard said about the effort. “Ball’s on the floor, 50-50, you gotta win it.”
When asked about Happ’s hustle, Davison said, “That’s our All-American. I don’t know how many All-Americans are out there diving for the ball, but ours does.” That hustle is contagious: Davison continued, “Those little things don’t go unnoticed.”
Down six points with a minute to go, Michigan’s Isaiah Livers knocked down a difficult triple to draw within three points. It would be the last time the Wolverines scored. As Wisconsin brought the ball down the floor, Ignas Brazdeikis hit Happ away from the play. The referees decided to award an intentional foul, giving Wisconsin two shots and the ball. The senior center hit one of two, and scored a layup on the ensuing possession to make it a six-point game.
Expressing confusion about the foul call, Beilein said, “I’m going to have to be schooled up on that.” Gard, citing the video given to coaches to explain calls, authoritatively added, “It’s a rule. Can’t do it.”
After a Michigan miss, a Nate Reuvers slam dunk and two Brad Davison free throws put the game on ice. In a scene reminiscent of victories over Purdue and Michigan State in recent years, a wave of jubilant students stormed the court, enveloping the Badgers in an unforgettable celebration.
“There was a little more juice in the stands today,” Happ said. “It’s always nice when we get a full crowd and they get behind us.”
A superb defensive performance helped clinch the victory. The Badgers held a Michigan team that had averaged over 73 points a game to only 40 percent shooting from the field, including five of 18 from beyond the arc. They also forced 16 turnovers; the Wolverines had entered averaging around nine per game. The Wolverines scored only .844 points per possession. Ignas Brazdeikis, who entered scoring over 15 points per game, was held scoreless on zero for five shooting. Wisconsin native Jordan Poole led the way with 14 points, though only three came after halftime.
When asked about what went wrong offensively, Beilein said pithily, “Wisconsin’s defense.”
Not to be outdone, Gard one-upped his opposing coach in explaining his simple strategy. On his team’s approach, he said, “Don’t let Michigan score. Don’t let Simpson score, don’t let Teske score, don’t let Brazdeikis score, don’t let Poole score, don’t let Livers score.”
“It’s a team defense, we’re focused on all five guys on the floor,” Davison explained. He also credited Happ for his work limiting Brazdeikis.
It was Michigan’s first loss in the regular season since February 6, 2018 — its only loss of any kind in that stretch was against Villanova in the national championship game last year. Beilein joked that the team’s freshmen, who were used to singing the school’s fight song after every win, were surprised to find the locker room quiet after the game.
Beilein framed it as a learning opportunity: “We haven’t had the opportunity to grow from losses. We needed that growth today,”
Gard’s takeaway from the game was “[the team] proved that they’ve got it.” After this win, the lofty expectations at the start of the year may finally be restored.
Despite the celebration, there is still work to do for Wisconsin.
“The biggest thing for our team is to not get complacent,” Happ said.
Not content to bask in the glow of this win, Gard discounted its importance, instead looking forward: “We never really talked about them being number 2. It’s just the next opponent, that’s why it was a big game, because it was the next one. We’ll have a big one on Wednesday.”
Though Gard will never admit it, this win is one of the biggest in recent memory, especially given the last month’s performance. For a Wisconsin team and fanbase that had allowed doubt to creep in recently, Saturday’s events provided an unforgettable push in their pursuit of an even bigger prize.