Playing its third game in as many days, Nebraska may have been expected to tire out against the well-rested Badgers on Friday.
Instead, with their fumes low and their bench shallow, the Cornhuskers (6-14, 18-16) ran on pure adrenaline, pushing Wisconsin to its limits as the the Badgers (14-6, 23-9) fought their way to a 66-62 win.
Despite its double bye, Wisconsin was often the team that looked more out of sync, perhaps experiencing a bit of rust after an unusual five-day layoff.
The Cornhuskers game plan was clear: stop Ethan Happ. That strategy worked to great effect, with double and even occasional triple teams forcing seven turnovers on the night from the big man.
“Ethan was circled — double circled — on the scouting report,” Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said. “I told him in the handshake line,’“E, I’m not gonna miss you brother.’”
The Badgers played a sloppy first half, totaling nine turnovers. Happ was yanked from the court numerous times on the night and played just 20 minutes.
The period was an unusual one, as the Badgers never trailed, and led for all but 22 seconds of the half. But in a four minute stretch beginning with 10 minutes remaining, Wisconsin undid the good work that had helped it build an early 21-8 lead, turning the ball over a whopping six times.
“Knowing that Nebraska was playing well, we were gonna be fighting against that momentum and emotional push that they had going the last couple of days,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said
The scoreboard may have shown Nebraska behind, but the Cornhuskers were the ones controlling the tempo, upping the pace and creating chaos for a Wisconsin team that likes to play slow and steady.
Ending the half on a 5-0 run, the game was in limbo for Wisconsin. A small but loud faction of Nebraska fans right of midcourt seemed to amplify every Badgers mistake.
Wisconsin looked like two different teams in the first half, and it was the second, more sloppy one that it would largely carry into the second period.
Early on, Happ lost the ball in the paint, Davison threw away an errant pass and before long Wisconsin’s previous 13-point lead had evaporated. The Badgers briefly trailed early in the second half.
“We can’t do that again if we wanna’ beat teams like Michigan State,” sophomore forwardNate Reuvers said of his team’s mistakes.
And then, with under 10 minutes remaining, Reuvers banked in a three.
Reuvers was impressive on the night, but even he smiled after his lucky shot.
“I was like ‘Oh s---, that thing’s long,” he said.
The Badgers made the most of that small fortune, holding onto a lead for the rest of the game and advancing to the tournament semifinals against Michigan State.
While the win was sloppy, it was also a major test passed which proved Wisconsin can win with almost nothing -- perhaps even less than nothing -- from its best player.
Happ finished the night with more turnovers than points, as the Badgers rode their supporting cast to the finish line. Reuvers, senior forward Khalil Iverson and sophomore forward Aleem Ford all finished with at least 11 points, and sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice iced the game late, hitting a step-back three with under a minute to play.
The Badgers face Michigan State on Saturday, where it will be much harder to recover from the 17 turnovers they committed on Friday.
“We survived and we advanced, and that’s what March is all about,” Davison said. “We have new life tomorrow.”