CHICAGO — For the second straight year, Wisconsin’s run in the Big Ten Tournament came to an end at the hands of Michigan State.
In a surprising turn of events, 2018’s nail-biter was followed by a resounding defeat Saturday as the Spartans (16-4 Big Ten, 27-6 overall) triumphed over Wisconsin (14-6, 23-10) for the seventh consecutive time, 67-55.
Michigan State's torrid shooting put the Badgers in a big hole and never trailed. Wisconsin suffered its worst loss of the year and fell short of a Big Ten title for the fourth consecutive year.
After a poor performance in the win over Nebraska on Friday, senior forward Ethan Happ was a focal point early on. Happ touched the ball on the Badgers’ first four possessions of the game, but missed two of his first three shots.
Unlike the Cornhuskers, Michigan State was content to single-team Happ for much of the day. As a result, he took far more shots, but struggled to find the open man. Even when he did, the open man rarely hit open shots.
The top-seeded Spartans, propelled by makes on four of their first five three-point attempts, jumped out to a 20-6 lead and led by as much as 17 in the first half. It took the Badgers more than 15 minutes and eight attempts to hit their first triple, by which point Michigan State had sunk five.
Despite generating open looks from deep, they finished the game two-for-19, a season low and not nearly enough to overcome the Spartans' nine triples.
A 17-8 run to close the half got the Badgers within single digits, but their early woes were far too much to overcome. Even despite the successful spell, Wisconsin finished the half shooting 35 percent to their opponent’s 46 percent.
“We made all our shots, and they missed some wide open shots,” Michgian State head coach Tom Izzo said.
The Badgers turned the ball over only three times in the half while forcing nine, but the shooting differential made the biggest difference. A bizarre last-second missed dunk by Xavier Tillman was the only thing that kept the score within double-digits as Michigan State led 35-27 at half.
Wisconsin stayed within striking distance throughout the second half; and-one baskets from Happ, soophomore guard Brad Davison and senior guard Khalil Iverson energized the Badger partisans in the crowd. After the Iverson three-point play made it 43-49, Wisconsin didn’t score for more than seven minutes, a stretch that included nine consecutive misses. It shot 32.4 percent from the field in the second half and didn’t make any of its nine three-point attempts.
As Michigan State big man Nick Ward sat with foul trouble in the second half, Wisconsin attempted to bully its way inside. Failing to convert around the rim hurt, though, as the Badgers finished only 16-for-29 on shots under the basket.
Timely makes by the Spartans, including a huge three from Kenny Goins that bounced in and out before dropping through the cylinder, ensured that the Badgers wouldn’t get any closer than six points.
“We could never overcome the start,” head coach Greg Gard said. “We really struggled from the perimeter, even though we had some good looks.”
Happ finished with 20 points, including 12 in the second half. Perhaps his biggest contribution was on the defensive side of the floor, where he had four blocks and two steals. Freshman guard Kobe King, who was scoreless in yesterday’s game, had 13. Iverson had eight.
For Michigan State, scoring came from all quarters. The Spartans shot nine of 21 from three-point range. Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston knifed through the Badgers defense, contributing 21 points. Goins knocked down four of his seven threes, ending with 13 points.
The Spartans now advance to Sunday's conference championship game to face either Michigan or Minnesota.
Unlike last year, however, this loss to Michigan State does not spell the end to the season. The Badgers will learn their tournament destination Sunday evening, their resurgent campaign alive until at least next weekend. Whether they can make the changes necessary to achieve their goals remains to be seen.
"I'm just happy to keep playing basketball," Davison said.