Trailing at the half to a team in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings yet again, No. 19 Wisconsin got another reminder Saturday morning that no game in the conference can be taken for granted.
And with the usual sources of offense anemic in key moments, it was their “glue guy” who stepped up to make the game’s biggest shots.
The Badgers (12-6 Big Ten, 20-9 overall) continued their recent run of slow starts and strong finishes, coming back from a seven-point halftime deficit to defeat Penn State (5-13, 12-17) 61-57 and preserve their chance at a top-four conference seed.
Wisconsin’s offense sputtered early as senior forward Ethan Happ couldn’t find his range from inside. Happ missed his first five shots — and seven of his first nine — as the Badgers struggled to get the ball moving against an aggressive Penn State press defense.
Coming off one of the worst games of his career, sophomore guard Brad Davison struggled again in the early going, air-balling a pair of three-pointers and settling for several contested step-back jump shots. After 20 minutes, Davison and Happ were a team-worst minus-nine and minus-six, shooting a combined four of 15.
With the usual sources of offense sputtering, freshman guard Kobe King asserted himself to the tune of a team-leading seven first-half points. Where his teammates were passive and settled for long jumpers against the Penn State defense, King stayed consistently aggressive in getting to the rim and attacking late closeouts.
The team’s often-passive offensive play was on display yet again with the Badgers shooting only two free throws in the opening half. At one point late in the first half, Happ got Penn State forward Mike Watkins up in the air on a pump fake in the post but looked to pass rather than drawing the contact for a foul.
The Nittany Lions led 33-26 at the half, powered by forward Lamar Stevens’ 12 points.
Happ got things going out of the break as he scored Wisconsin’s first six points of the half and added an assist on a Khalil Iverson lay-up.
His next basket was a big one. Happ hit a running lay-up in semi-transition, sprung by a screen from senior forward Charles Thomas, to tie the game at 38 with 14 minutes and 14 seconds left in the game. It was Wisconsin’s first tie in more than 20 minutes of game action, and it sent the anxious Kohl Center crowd into a frenzy.
That excitement only grew moments later, when junior guard Brevin Pritzl hit an open three to tie the game at 41, and King followed it up with a steal and lay-up to give Wisconsin its first lead since the 17:03 mark of the first half.
The Nittany Lions battled back, but each time they cut Wisconsin’s lead, there seemed to be another Pritzl dagger three waiting for them. The junior guard finished the game with 17 points on five of five shooting with a trio of three-pointers in a two-minute stretch of the second half.
Wisconsin stayed locked at 53 points for nearly four minutes until yet another crucial basket from Pritzl on a driving lay-up with three minutes and 59 seconds on the clock. Pritzl followed up his score on the next trip down the court by saving a loose ball along the sidelines to keep the possession alive and finished it off with a pair of free throws to put the lead at 57-53.
Sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice squandered a pair of offensive possessions late, committing a costly traveling violation with just over a minute remaining. Then, with the Badgers leading by two with just over 15 seconds on the clock, Trice settled for a long three that clanked hard off the back iron.
Trice’s poor judgment left Penn State with a final possession to tie or take the lead, but the Badgers stepped up defensively, forcing a pair of turnovers on Penn State’s final two possessions to keep the lead intact.
Appropriately, it was Pritzl who stepped to the line with 1.9 seconds remaining, and he hit the second free throw to ice the game.