For the past several years, Wisconsin’s basketball program has been defined by two words: Ethan Happ. In Wisconsin’s (14-6 Big Ten, 23-9 overall) tense victory over Nebraska (6-14, 18-16) Friday in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, the Badgers shed that definition.
During a season that has been defined by alternating ups and downs for nearly every player, Wisconsin has continued to find new ways to win by combining timely scoring from unexpected sources. That trend was on full display in the victory over a scrappy Huskers team.
Happ had his hands full with a Nebraska defense that often double- and even triple-teamed him and forced him into seven turnovers. He only took four shots, making two of them. Going scoreless in his nine minutes in the second half, he rode the bench down the stretch and had to watch as his teammates put the game on ice.
“I didn’t play well, obviously,” he explained bluntly as he slumped in a chair outside his locker. “It was unlike most defense, they were totally leaving their guys. I was getting double-teamed by two guys and a third was leaving his guy whenever I turned my back, so they did a good job with that.”
“I thought he was out of sorts from the beginning, very uncharacteristic game for him,” head coach Greg Gard said. “Fortunately he had teammates who rallied to his side and were able to play well.”
Sophomore forward Nate Reuvers, Happ’s understudy who has gone quiet for big stretches of the year, provided the marquee moment of the night. After Nebraska took its first lead of the game with little over nine minutes to play, Reuvers caught the ball at the top of the key.
Pump-faking, he got Nebraska forward Isaiah Roby in the air before taking one dribble to his right and banking in a triple with nine minutes and 12 seconds to go. While Brad Davison teased him after the game that it was “all luck,” the make provided a vital boost.
Reuvers then turned around and blocked a shot on the other end, stemming the Cornhusker run and reinjecting energy into his team. His Happian touch by the rim helped UW overcome his fellow big man’s struggles, as he pitched in 14 points, six rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
Sophomore forward Aleem Ford scored seven consecutive points early in the first half, including a four-point play after being fouled on an attempt from beyond the arc.
Senior forward Khalil Iverson, whom Nebraska coach Tim Miles called the decisive factor in the game, continued his impressive string of performances with 14 points of his own. Sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice, who has struggled mightily over the past several weeks and went scoreless for nearly the entire game, hit two colossal triples at the end of the game to clinch the win.
While a win is always welcome in the month of March, even against a 13th-seeded Nebraska team that had lost 11 of its last 14 games in the regular season, the Badgers will have to improve. The encouraging developments offensively will have to continue, and the mistakes--including an astonishing 17 turnovers--will have to be eliminated. It is easy to dismiss an uncharacteristic performance earlier in the regular season, but Gard will have to impress upon his troops the stakes of the situation.
“We made it more difficult on ourselves than we needed to,” Gard said. “The nice thing about this is that you get to move on, survive and advance, quickly put it behind us.”
As better opponents loom, starting with a formidable top-seeded Michigan State team in tomorrow’s semifinal, this Wisconsin team will need to play mistake-free basketball as the margin of error slims. Now is the time for more complete performances — if they cannot take care of the basketball, and Happ and Trice are essentially anonymous again, the Badgers will be sent home far sooner than they hope.
While Friday’s victory showed the diverse scoring options this team possesses, that potential needs to be realized, and fast. It’s the only way they will give Happ the send-off he deserves, and recapture the magic of Marches past.