A strong first half gives the Badgers (6-5 Big Ten, 13-9 overall) just enough to eke out a 64-63 upset win over the No. 14 Michigan State Spartans (8-3, 16-6), giving Wisconsin a happy end to a bad week.
With the news of Kobe King’s transfer, the suspension of Brad Davison and a 68-62 collapse at Iowa on Monday, the Badgers were short-handed and in need of a win against the top team in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin responded and dominated the first half. The Badgers opened the game with a 10-4 run and entered halftime with a 43-27 lead. Junior forward Nate Reuvers led the way with 13 points in the half and was perfect from the floor.
The fast start was exactly what Wisconsin needed and the atmosphere inside the Kohl Center was one of the best of the season. Reuvers — who ended up with a team-high 15 points — said the energy helped the Badgers keep energized that first half.
“A lot of us are just playing with unlimited confidence. It felt like every shot that went up was going in,” Reuvers said.
UW held Michigan State to just 33 percent from the field and held junior forward Xavier Tillman — who scored 15 points in the Badgers’ 67-55 loss at Lansing — scoreless in the first.
The Badgers started the second half with a dunk from Reuvers. Then Wisconsin went cold and MSU went on an 11-0 run to cut the lead to 48-41.
The Spartan guards came to life in the second half. Freshman guard Rocket Watts got hot from three and had 16 points while senior guard Cassius Winston had the game-high with 23 points including 3-for-5 three pointers.
Winston’s scoring brought the score to 50-47 and the momentum seemed to be slipping away after Reuvers turned the ball over. During the media timeout and one of his own, Gard tried to calm the team and let them refocus.
“We [knew] they were going to make a run. It’s our turn to punch back,” Gard said.
The Badgers did just that. Junior forward Micah Potter provided a spark with a dunk. Senior guard Brevin Pritzl drove down low and finished with a swarm of Spartans around him, then junior forward Aleem Ford hit a huge three pointer after a Watts turn over to make it 57-47 with eight minutes left in the game.
Ford scored 13 points and shot 5-for-6 from the field. Head coach Greg Gard said he was happy with how he played with aggression and had one of the “best games of his career.”
“He stepped up. Opportunities were there and he took advantage of them. I’m proud of him,” Gard said.
Down the stretch, both teams struggled to score and the play became less fluid. Wisconsin got crucial defensive stops against the Spartans. Brevin Pritzl forced a turnover on a drive and freshman Tyler Wahl had a couple crucial defensive rebounds in the final minutes that led to free throws for senior guard D’Mitrik Trice.
In the final seconds, Cassius Winston hit two three pointers to cut the lead to one, but when the final buzzer sounded, Wisconsin did just enough to win — even with only seven scholarship players available.
Brevin Pritzl and D’Mitrik Trice played nearly the whole game and were all over the floor. Pritzl finished with 10 points and seven rebounds while Trice had 14 points, six rebounds and five assists.
Gard said he was happy with how the team left it all out on the floor and how hard they worked, especially after the past week.
“I’m proud of the guys in the locker room and what they represent. They understand they represent a lot more than themselves,” Gard said.
Trice’s said he definitely needed an ice bath after the game, but the effort was worth it for a potentially season-defining win.
“My legs are super super heavy right now. But the win negates all that. I feel really good,” Trice said.
Trice will need plenty of rest before Wisconsin travels to take on the Minnesota Gophers (5-6, 11-10) on Wednesday Feb. 5.