With six minutes and two seconds remaining in the second half on Tuesday, senior big man Ethan Happ scored his 2000th point as a Badger, joining rare company and bringing No. 20 Wisconsin within one point at 56-55.
It wasn’t a harbinger of things to come.
On a night when Happ was recognized for his scoring prowess, most of his teammates couldn’t buy a bucket, and the Badgers (9-5 Big Ten, 17-8 overall) scored just four more points down the stretch while stumbling to a 59-67 loss against No. 11 Michigan State (11-3 Big Ten, 20-5 overall).
“They were not giving our three-point shooters much room,” head coach Greg Gard said after the game. “They were playing Happ pretty much one-on-one with a little bit of help, but for the most part there was a lot of pressure on our perimeter which was hard to get easier looks.”
Buckets weren’t hard to come by in the first period of the game, as junior guard Brevin Pritzl exploded for seven quick points and sophomore forward Nate Reuvers ended the period with eight. Wisconsin entered the break up 38-37.
It was a high-scoring, back-and-forth half that Michigan State head Tom Izzo coach called “un-American,” and the prolific scoring wouldn’t last for either team thereafter.
Still, the Badgers could have had a larger cushion entering the second half, as they led 32-25 before Michigan State ripped off an 8-0 run to regain control in the game.
The Spartans ended the game with 13 fast-break points, and pushed the ball for long stretches of the game against a Wisconsin team more comfortable playing in the halfcourt.
“You don’t really realize how fast they actually push off of makes, misses, layups until you’re playing,” freshman guard Kobe King, who finished with six points, said. “I think we struggled with it a little in the first half but as the game went on I think we handled it better.”
Though the game slowed down considerably in the second half, the Spartans’ run-and-gun style seemed to tire out the Badgers and lead to the battle of attrition that occurred later on.
Happ was the only Badger to score multiple field goals in the second half, and before sophomore guard Brad Davison hit a garbage time three-pointer with ten seconds remaining, Wisconsin had gone the previous five minutes and 10 seconds without a single point.
Wisconsin wasn’t unusually careless with the ball, with just 10 turnovers on the night.
Instead, they were simply impotent on offense for long stretches of the game.
The Badgers shot six of 20 from three-point range, and five of 12 from the free-throw line, including a rough zero for six night from Happ.
While the Badgers have shot well from deep this season, they have now averaged just a hair above 30 percent in their last three games, a stretch which has now produced just one win.
Michigan State’s defense deserves much of the credit, as it held the Badgers to just 21 second-half points and many possessions without an open look.
That defense eventually culminated in a late-game scoring drought, before the Badgers defense eventually capitulated as the Spartans’ lead ballooned to nine.
Wisconsin will lose close games in the Big Ten, especially to ranked opponents. But they didn’t help themselves enough in the game’s earlier stages, especially with the chance to build its lead further before halftime.
“You watch any other games [in the Big Ten], they’re coming down to the last 2-3 minutes,” Gard said. “But there’s so many things in the other 37 minutes that we can be better at.”