The Badgers got the Johnny Davis they know and love back, the rest of the team stepped up around him, and No. 14 Wisconsin (19-4, 10-3 in Big Ten) walked out of No. 17 Michigan State’s (17-6, 8-4) Breslin Center with an impressive 70-62 win Tuesday night, bringing UW back to a tie atop the Big Ten standings.
Davis led the way for Wisconsin with 25 points — 18 of which came in the second half — but had lots of help along the way with Tyler Wahl and Chucky Hepburn each scoring 11, and the No. 14 Badgers secured the win over the No. 17 Spartans.
All in all, eight Badgers notched themselves in the scoring column in what was a complete team win, showcased by the team’s 12 forced turnovers.
“We were going to have to have contributions from [everyone],” head coach Greg Gard said after the game. “And we’ve started to get more and more, even though it’s maybe not eye-popping on the stat sheet. Guys have continued to grow.”
Both teams got off to a rough start offensively, shooting a combined 3-15 in the first five minutes of play for a 4-2 Wisconsin lead at the under-16 media timeout.
The defenses stood stout through the rest of the first half, as the two teams went into the half with the Badgers leading 29-23. The 23-point first half was the second-lowest scoring first half of the season for the Spartans and 19 points less than their 42-point half in the teams’ first meeting at the Kohl Center on Jan. 21.
The main difference in the Michigan State scoring output in the two first halves boiled down to what they were able to do on the fast break. In the Jan. 21 meeting, Sparty managed to convert a lot more quick baskets, something the Badgers looked to have focused on in the rematch.
Wisconsin, who has played faster this year than their traditional slow-paced half court offense from seasons past, made sure to keep the tempo at a snail’s pace on Tuesday night. In the teams’ first meeting, the Badgers allowed 21 fast break points and found themselves behind the ball on too many occasions. Wisconsin held MSU to zero fastbreak points through the first 20 minutes of play in East Lansing, keeping the Spartans’ chances at a minimum by only turning the ball over three times before the halftime break.
The second half started just how the first one ended: with the teams trading good defensive possessions and the Badger lead hovering around eight points.
The lead stayed steady for the first couple minutes of the second half, but you couldn’t help but feel like Michigan State was primed to make a run in front of their home crowd.
The Spartans did just that, slowly chipping away at the Wisconsin lead and pulling within one point, the closest it had been since 12-8.
The Badgers needed an answer, and Davis provided it. The sophomore guard scored Wisconsin’s next seven points and assisted on a Brad Davison three to cool down the Michigan State team and crowd and pull back ahead by six.
From there, Wisconsin’s lead never slipped below six, and the Badgers held on for possibly their biggest win of the season thus far.
With seven conference games left — including a Mar. 1 meeting at home against fellow frontrunner Purdue — this win could come back to be a massive catalyst for a regular-season conference championship in quite possibly the toughest conference in the nation.
Whether or not the Badgers manage to end up atop the conference standings will, of course, be dependent on Johnny Davis’ play, but also that of freshman guard Chucky Hepburn. The Nebraska native — who celebrated his birthday Tuesday — finished his night at the Breslin Center with three assists, three rebounds and two steals to go along with his scoring output. Hepburn also contributed in ways you won’t see on the box score, controlling the speed of play and locking down some of Michigan State’s top scorers. Hepburn has played beyond his years all season and made it easy for Gard to justify starting a freshman point guard at Wisconsin for the first time since Devin Harris in 2001.
This final stretch of the season is going to test the newly-turned 19-year-old. But if Hepburn can keep playing at the level he has all season, this Badger squad could really make some noise in March.
Wisconsin returns home this weekend when they play hosts to Rutgers on Saturday afternoon. Rutgers (14-9, 8-5 in Big Ten) will be riding a high coming into Madison after upsetting No. 16 Ohio State 66-64 in Piscataway, NJ on Wednesday evening. The Saturday matinee meeting will tip-off at 1 p.m. and air live on Fox Sports 1.