A pattern seems to be emerging for the Badgers this season. In every game that a typical starter is injured, Wisconsin (12-6, 4-4 Big Ten) loses. Unfortunately, the pattern was further reinforced on Monday night in Evanston, as Coach Greg Gard’s team dropped another tight game, this time to Northwestern (13-5, 4-3) by a score of 66-63.
This game’s injured starter was Max Klesmit, who, after being ruled out for the rest of the game after his first half mouth injury against Penn State, sat out the game on Monday. He swapped places with Tyler Wahl, who started his second straight game against Northwestern after missing the previous three with an ankle injury. Also earning his second straight start, and second all season, was Connor Essegian — the dynamic freshman averaging 10 points a game.
Jordan Davis returned to the starting lineup in Klesmit’s spot after an improved performance against Penn State, along with Chucky Hepburn and Steven Crowl — both coming off hot performances against the Nittany Lions.
An early 5:30 p.m. tip off, won by Crowl, allowed for a quick start for Wisconsin’s offense — a rare sight for the Badgers this season. Wahl’s reemerging confidence helped ignite the offense, as he started quick with a jumper and his first of three assists on the night.
Surprisingly, the standout of the supporting cast was Davis — who tallied two early layups and an open 3-pointer. Davis’ quick run of seven straight points was quite possibly the best scoring run he’s contributed all season, and it certainly provided a confidence booster after he previously went scoreless in two straight games.
Largely missing from early action was Crowl, who exited the game with a ripped jersey and returned wearing a No. 41 backup jersey, when he finally put down his first points of just eight on the night.
Meanwhile, Coach Gard continued to weigh his options on the bench in the big man positions, as both Markus Ilver and Carter Gilmore got early minutes in replacement of Crowl.
At the halfway point of the first half, Wisconsin trailed 16-9 due to a combination of early turnovers, unnecessary offensive fouls and a lack of defensive intensity. All of these factors, while relatively uncharacteristic for the Badgers, allowed Northwestern to find an offensive groove early in the first half, led by their dangerous triple-threat backcourt of Boo Buie, Chase Audige and Ty Berry. Furthermore, the lack of scoring from Wisconsin loomed large, as only two players were even in the scoring column.
The unlikely hero of the first half turned out to be Kamari McGee, who drilled just his second 3-pointer of the season to break the Badgers’ scoring drought and cut the Northwestern lead to four points. A necessary Essegian jumper added onto the offensive momentum, but Wisconsin still struggled to contain the Wildcats on defense.
Even after an energizing dunk from Crowl and a 3-pointer from Hepburn, Wisconsin still stared down a 10 point lead in the closing seconds of the half. Thankfully, a last second acrobatic tip from Gilmore fell through and the Badgers took a six point deficit into halftime, 32-26.
Another quick two of Wahl’s 11 points and a wide open 3-pointer from Essegian prompted a miniature comeback for Wisconsin, which was capped off by a deep, lead-taking 3-pointer from Hepburn.
Northwestern found the bottom of the net to end the Badgers’ 8-0 opening run, but Essegian held the Wildcats away from the lead with yet another 3-pointer. A steal and slam by Hepburn on the following play served up some real momentum for Wisconsin, as they found themselves a 39-35 lead after just five minutes of second half play.
Davis continued to score in the second half as well, getting inside on a backdoor cut for an easy two more of his team-leading 15 point total. But, on the defensive side, Northwestern’s backcourt continued to score as they pleased. Buie especially found his touch in the second half, as he led all scorers with 20 points, supported by Audige’s 16.
A key component of Northwestern’s proficient second half guard play was free throws, as the Badgers could not keep them off the line. However, Wisconsin also found their way to the line 16 times. The only difference was that Northwestern shot an efficient 88% from the line, whereas the Badgers put up an embarrassing 56% — their seven missed free throws could have been seven points contributing to a Badger win.
Davis and Wahl worked their hardest to keep Wisconsin within reach with back-to-back 3-pointers, but Northwestern capitalized on the constant missed Badger free throws.
Down one with under four minutes to play, Crowl slipped through the lane and laid the ball in to give Wisconsin a 61-60 lead. Right after, he got an open look from three, but was unable to convert. The Wildcats’ constant paint scoring continued as they took the lead yet again, and Hepburn, needing just a two-pointer to stay in the game, launched an NBA range 3-pointer that clanged off the backboard — painfully reminiscent of the losses to both Wake Forest and Michigan State.
Northwestern sealed their lead with free throws and downed the Badgers, 66-63. Wisconsin has now lost four of their last five Big Ten matchups and continues to slide down the standings.
Offensive struggles persist
While the scoring output from Crowl was concerning, it is important to note that he was double-teamed for the majority of the game by the Northwestern defense. On the other side of this was Davis’ performance, his season-high so far. A large part of this likely comes as a result of Gard’s decision to bench him last game, which presumably motivated Davis.
While it is great that Davis led the team with 15, it is also quite concerning that he was the only scorer with over 13 points in the game. A lack of offensive efficiency certainly isn’t unfamiliar for this group of Badgers, but severe droughts from the likes of Crowl, Hepburn, Essegian and Wahl are especially painful when they’re the typical scoring leaders. In the Big Ten, the stars shine bright, but the Badgers’ stars have been fading. Big Ten championship hopes are beginning to disappear and March Madness goals are joylessly beginning to dwindle.
The Badgers will look to turn their season around again on the road against Maryland, who they beat earlier in the season at the Kohl Center. Both teams are sitting lower in the Big Ten standings than expected, so the 6 p.m. tip off on the Big Ten Network will be a must-win for both squads’ seasons.