If playing in close games was in style, Wisconsin would be leaders of the trend. In yet another overtime game, the Badgers pulled out a gritty win, as they took down the high-powered Iowa Hawkeyes on the road, 78-75. Now boasting a 2-0 Big Ten record, the Badgers are finally cracking the AP Top 25, picking up the No. 22 rank after Sunday’s win.
While the Badgers’ defense was extremely solid once again, it is worth noting that the Hawkeyes were without their leading scorer and one of the most prolific playmakers in the conference, Kris Murray. Even so, the Hawkeyes jumped out to a 7-2 start prior to Sunday’s game, most recently dominating previously-ranked No. 20 Iowa State.
Even with the improving bench play of Connor Essegian and Carter Gilmore, Greg Gard started his same reliable five — Chucky Hepburn, Max Klesmit, Jordan Davis, Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl. Of course, as they always say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Badgers have been on a roll since their tight loss to Wake Forest — taking down in-state rival Marquette and giving previously-ranked No. 13 Maryland their first loss of the season — so it’s safe to assume there won’t be a lineup change in the near future.
Right out of the tip, Crowl picked up where he left off last game against Maryland. His quick four points in the paint were the first of the game, as the Badgers jumped out to an early 6-0 lead. Wahl joined the paint party too, as he recorded his first two points of 21 on the night — to which he also added seven rebounds and three assists.
The defense held strong in the first stretch of the game, too, as the Badgers forced long threes and bad shots from the Hawkeyes until Iowa finally got on the board almost five minutes into the game.
Essegian and Gilmore rotated in much earlier than they have in the past few games thanks to early foul trouble. In the first half alone, four of five starters had two or more fouls. As the playmakers took to the bench, Iowa found a groove on offense fueled by consecutive Badger turnovers, swinging the momentum with the help of the home crowd.
Thankfully, the starters put their production back on the floor late in the first half, as they continued to dominate the paint. A spin and score down the lane from Wahl helped the Badgers pull back into the game. It was clear that the paint was most effective Sunday, as both teams scored mostly inside the three-point arc — mostly thanks to rather abysmal three-point shooting.
A Hepburn fadeaway — two of his 11 points — tied the game at 27 as the teams headed to the locker room. Once again, the Badgers gave the ball to Hepburn with time running down, and as he has done so many times this season, he delivered in crunch time.
Encouraging play from the first half carried over to the second, as Hepburn started out quick with a steal and a three. Iowa found another offensive run, though, as they opened up a lead as high as six points early in the second half. The Badgers fought back, as solid play from veterans Davis and Wahl helped Wisconsin regain the lead with under five minutes to play.
An Essegian 3-pointer with under two minutes remaining gave the Badgers a 60-52 lead. Because Wisconsin has been in so many close games already this season, the experience gathered so far should have provided comfortable execution in closing this one out. But, in a rather shocking and dramatic manner, the Hawkeyes scored two quick buckets and, on the ensuing inbound play, stole it and nailed a 3-pointer for the tie — painfully reminiscent of Kansas’ game-tying three in the Bahamas.
Nonetheless, the Badgers didn’t back down in overtime. Wahl’s experience in crunch time was on full display, as he scored seven points in the overtime period. Pairing that with a massive 3-pointer from Davis and a hook from Crowl, the Badgers found themselves in the driver seat late in the overtime period.
Both teams missed crucial free throws in the last seconds of overtime, but from the inbound after a Hawkeye score, Essegian broke loose and slammed the game-sealing dunk. A three-point tying attempt from Iowa was no good, and Wisconsin survived the overtime thriller by three.
While all but two of the close games this season have turned out well for Wisconsin, it is still remarkable how consistent the Badgers are at playing to the level of their opponents. Even the two losses this season were decided by a total of four points. As the defense continues to stifle high powered offenses, Wisconsin must continue to improve their shooting. A mere 27% from three and 54% from the free throw line against Iowa are both extremely concerning numbers.
Sure, the production in the paint from Crowl and Wahl has been spectacular, but this will not always be the case. As the Badgers move closer towards the true Big Ten season in January, they must ensure that their shooting percentages are high enough to win games. Essegian’s outstanding shooting thus far is the bright spot — 14 points in Iowa City — and the rest of the team should build upon this, especially the players who know they can, like Hepburn and Klesmit. Either way, a road win in the Big Ten is valuable, no matter how it’s achieved.
The Badgers take the floor next at the Kohl Center against Lehigh after surviving an early Big Ten test. The matchup against the Mountain Hawks will tip off at 6 p.m. on Dec. 15 and can be found on the Big Ten Network and the Badger Sports Network.