One of the finest players in Wisconsin history left the Kohl Center floor for the last time Thursday as cheers cascaded down from a thankful crowd. Blowing valedictory kisses to the crowd, he walked down the bench, giving a hug to each player as his team put the finishing touches on a satisfying victory.
Thus ended the Ethan Happ’s playing career in Madison.
The senior forward had 21 points in his farewell performance, including 16 in the second half as the 21st-ranked Badgers (13-6 Big Ten, 21-9 overall) beat a foundering Hawkeyes team (10-9, 21-9) in Madison, 65-45, to earn a season sweep. After failing to make a field goal in the first half, he authored a trademark performance in the second half, helping to build on Wisconsin's existing lead.
Happ outscored the entire Hawkeyes team for much of that period, as the Badgers turned a close game into a dunk-filled blowout.
“It was nice to stomp on someone’s throat,” Happ said.
Happ’s night showed that he was still capable of surprises, even after four seasons. His first three points came on made free throws. His first made field goal didn’t come until 18 minutes remained in the second half. He contributed in other ways, including several emphatic blocks.
In his typically versatile fashion, Happ dished out three assists, had eight offensive rebounds, blocked two shots and had two steals. He also made a career-high 11 shots from the free-throw line on 18 attempts.
“He’s been working at [free throws] relentlessly, tirelessly,” Gard said. “I even get tired of watching him shoot free throws.”
Asked how it felt to leave the court, Happ remarked plaintively, “I don’t wanna leave. I’ve definitely experienced a full five years here. But it was tough to come off court for the last time. All good things must come to an end.”
While the evening was a celebration of four successful years, the other Badgers showed that the future remains bright. Sophomore forwards Aleem Ford and Nate Reuvers made a significant impact while the Hawkeyes stifled Happ for much of the first half, doing enough to give the Badgers a sizable lead. Their defense also pestered the Hawkeyes throughout the game. Iowa finished with 18 makes on 59 shot attempts.
“Obviously, defensively, there were some really good things,” Gard said. “I thought our guys did a really great job taking away transition, taking away the post, making it hard to get threes off.”
With the win, Wisconsin is now one game away from clinching fourth place in the conference and getting the coveted double bye in next week’s Big Ten tournament. A victory over Ohio State Sunday or a Maryland loss to Minnesota tomorrow will ensure the Badgers won’t have to play until the quarterfinal round in Chicago.
Happ’s was the biggest name on a senior night that honored a class responsible for two Sweet Sixteen runs. Forward Khalil Iverson reminded fans that it was his special evening, too, throwing down a tomahawk slam for the first points of the game. His strong run of aggressive play continued, as he contributed a double-double.
“Khalil just always kills us,” Iowa acting head coach Kirk Speraw said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for what he does and how he plays.”
“He’s done a lot of work in the shadows,” Happ said. Teasing his teammate and road-trip roommate, he added, “You all see how talented he really is. He’s not good at 2K or ping pong, but he can play out there.”
Beyond Iverson’s pyrotechnics, the game was a typical Big Ten showdown. Both teams struggled to find their groove early, combining to miss 10 of the first 14 shots. Neither team hit double digits until over seven minutes had transpired. It didn’t get much better until the half: Badgers finished 10 of 28 in the period, while the Hawkeyes fared no better. The teams shot a combined five-for-21 from beyond the three-point arc. Bolstered by made free throws and some big shots from Ford, UW led 31-22 at the break. Clamping down defensively, UW eventually pushed their lead to 28, and the game never got close after the intermission.
Thomas was the last senior to enter the game for the Badgers after a stubborn student section exhorted Gard, “We want Chuck!” The Maryland native finally made an appearance with 10 minutes left in the game, to the delight of the fans. He finished his final home game with two rebounds in five minutes of play, leaving with 48 seconds to go to another standing ovation.
Though Happ, Iverson and Thomas have all played their last game at the Kohl Center, huge opportunities loom ahead. After playing the Buckeyes Sunday (3:30 PM), they’ll head to Chicago next weekend before learning their fate in the following weekend’s NCAA Tournament first round.