On Monday night, the Badgers showed in both halves that it’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish.
With time running out in the first half, senior forward Ethan Happ’s missed layup seemed the perfect summation of a disastrous performance for No. 22 Wisconsin, which appeared destined for an embarrassing loss against Illinois. Khalil Iverson, however, had other ideas.
Iverson’s putback dunk with fractions of a second remaining before the break, coupled with numerous feats of athleticism in the second half, sparked the Badgers (10-5 Big Ten, 18-8 overall) to a 64-58 win at the Kohl Center despite one of the worst games of Happ’s career.
Wisconsin snapped the Illini’s (6-9, 10-16) four-game win streak, beating them for the 15th consecutive time. In a game in which Happ and sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice both played poorly, Iverson and junior guard Brevin Pritzl provided quality minutes and hustle plays to will the Badgers to a tough conference win.
Iverson authored maybe the best performance of his career, with a season-high 16 points to go along with nine rebounds and an assist.
“I think Iverson likes seeing the orange and blue,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.
Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard’s inside perspective wasn’t much different.
“[Iverson] likes orange and blue uniforms,” he said.
Pritzl, meanwhile, scored five points and also set a career high with 10 rebounds. A two-handed chasedown block in the first half kept the Badgers in the game. At the end of the game, he appeared to jubilantly mouth “Ten boards!” as he reached double-digits for the first time.
The opening minutes looked all too familiar to Badger fans who’ve seen numerous anemic first-half performances this season. UW started one of 10 from the field, including four misses from sophomore Trice and five from sophomore forward Nate Reuvers. The Badgers never led in the period, shooting 32.1 percent from the field, including three for 11 from three-point range.
“I thought we missed some shots there early to start the game,” Gard said. “We started settling for jump shots.”
Iverson was the lone bright spot in the half, scoring six points on four shot attempts and grabbing five rebounds. His slam injected new life into a restless stadium. A newly confident squad battled the Illini down the stretch, with Iverson and Pritzl providing the energy and spark.
Happ scored the Badgers’ first four points of the game, but was largely quiet thereafter. He didn’t score again until a layup made it 33-32 in favor of Wisconsin with under 16 minutes left to play, and didn’t appear in the scoresheet again. It was his lowest total since February of 2017 against Ohio State. He did not play in the final four minutes of the game, as the Badgers went with a smaller lineup of Davison, Trice, Pritzl, Iverson and Reuvers. That group came through.
“Ethan carries us a lot,” Reuvers said. “We’re all confident in what we can do, and we just made plays to win.”
The smaller lineup was far from happless down the stretch without the senior forward, an encouraging turn after recent late-game struggles. When Pritzl missed a long jumper with 20 seconds to go, Reuvers cleaned up the rebound and put it back.
“Normally when Brev shoots I’m just getting back, because they’re probably going to make it,” Reuvers said. “But they were boxing me out, and I was just kind of creeping in there, and it came right to me.”
In a fitting conclusion, Iverson stole the ensuing inbounds pass, putting the game on ice.
“We were talking in the timeout and the coaches showed us a play, ‘they might be runnig this play,’” he explained, “and I think that was the exact play that they were gonna run. I was just trying to anticipate when he was going to throw the ball in. I think I’m pretty quick, so I threw my hand out there.”
The win moved Wisconsin into a tie for fourth place in the conference standings, with the two teams set to battle for the final double-bye in March’s conference tournament.