In the first game back from Thanksgiving break, families and students packed the Kohl Center for the return of Wisconsin Badger basketball in Madison. Students watched on with team-branded sunglasses as Wisconsin fell just short to Wake Forest as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, 78-75.
As a conference, the Big Ten held even with the ACC, as each conference had three wins going into Tuesday night. Wisconsin aimed to shift the advantage back to the Big Ten while simultaneously continuing their stellar play that flashed in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving week.
In the seventh game of the 2022-23 season, Greg Gard started the same five players as he has all season — Chucky Hepburn, Max Klesmit, Tyler Wahl, Jordan Davis and Steven Crowl.
Contrary to the trend of this season’s Badger games, both teams came out firing. Wake Forest put on an impressive shooting display, recording 53.7% from the field and 33% from 3-point range. The largest contributor was Tyree Appleby, who played all 40 minutes for the Demon Deacons and recorded 32 points, five assists and four rebounds.
Even with Appleby’s breakout performance, the Badgers found a way to keep the game close early. Wake Forest had no answers for Crowl, as he bullied his way in the paint to 15 points and seven rebounds. Hepburn, who was a perfect 3 for 3 from beyond the arc in the Badgers’ last outing against USC, continued his hot streak with early 3s to ignite the Kohl Center. Also contributing to the 43% 3-point shooting night was Isaac Lindsey, who drilled a highlight NBA-range 3-pointer.
As has been the case with almost every Wisconsin basketball game so far this season, a late first half drought opened up, and both teams struggled to produce any efficient offensive possessions.
The fans in the Kohl Center were lit ablaze once again as Wake Forest’s Damari Monsanto wrestled Connor Essegian to the floor, WWE style. However, in one of multiple questionable refereeing decisions made Tuesday night, the referee crew assessed a foul to Essegian instead, inviting loud disapproval from the fans.
However, even after the controversial decision, the most electric moment of the game came from a more, say, untraditional 3. With the seconds winding down and the fans deflated by Wake Forest’s seemingly six point halftime lead, Hepburn launched a buzzer beater from half court and drilled it. Though still down three, the Badgers headed into the locker room with determination, reignited by Hepburn’s jaw-dropping shot — and the referees followed to the locker rooms, showered in disapproving boos from the crowd.
In the early stages of the second half, foul calls favored the Badgers, as Wisconsin attempted 18 free throws throughout the game. And, like previous games, Wahl came alive in the second half.
Taking ideas from Crowl’s first half performance, Wahl took aggressive trips down the lane and converted multiple and one plays on the way to another prolific scoring night — 17 points without a single 3-pointer. On the other hand, Crowl tried his luck from outside, going 66% from three in the second half.
The Badgers kept the game close late, as the lead switched within the last five minutes of regulation. This was mostly due to Hepburn’s 3-point shooting, as he shot 50% from 3 and finished with a team-high 23 points — 18 coming from beyond the arc.
In the closing minutes of the game, fouling strategies became a major factor for both teams, as Wake Forest, with a three point lead, fouled multiple times to deprive the Badgers of any 3-point opportunities. On the last possession of the game, Hepburn attempted to avoid the same free throw scenario, as he hoisted up a logo 3 that innocently bounced off the backboard and allowed Wake Forest to dribble out the remaining four seconds of the game. Thus, the Badgers fell to the Demon Deacons, 78-75.
While the promising offensive improvement — especially seen in 3-point shooting — continues to flourish, concerns arise quickly from this close loss. The first is about the “new guys,” as Max Klesmit finished with just two points and Essegian — while he did record 12 points — lacked the firepower that has sparked the Badgers in the past few games, especially compared to his inspiring 53% three point shooting in the Bahamas.
The Badgers also missed their defense. Wisconsin let up the most points they have all season — by far, their worst defensive performance yet. While the Badgers did record seven steals, Gard’s signature defense was lacking on all fronts, especially in the rebounding and close out departments.
The Badgers will look to bounce back from Tuesday’s close loss as they take on the state rival Marquette Golden Eagles in Milwaukee. This will be another strong early test for Wisconsin, as Marquette will be coming off a major 26 point upset over sixth ranked Baylor. The game tips off at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3 and can be found on FS1.