If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it is broken, then something has to change.
For Wisconsin (12-5, 4-3 Big Ten), changes finally came in the form of uniforms, lineups and availability. Although not easily, these changes resulted in an outcome fans have not seen in almost three weeks — a win. In a close, highly-competitive affair, the Badgers ultimately beat Penn State (12-6, 3-4), 63-60.
The Badgers debuted their “By the Players” black alternate jerseys — the first black jerseys in Wisconsin men’s basketball history — at home. Such a change may have encouraged head coach Greg Gard to create a new starting lineup, too, for the first time all season (not including line-up changes forced by injuries). Connor Essegian got the nod to start the game over Jordan Davis, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who have been paying attention.
The freshman has been making his case for a starting spot all season — most recently with 14 points and 11 rebounds against Indiana. On the other hand, Davis went scoreless over the prior two games going into Tuesday night.
Essegian, accompanied by Chucky Hepburn, Max Klesmit, Steven Crowl and a returning Tyler Wahl, took the floor at the Kohl Center in the all-black uniforms, looking to keep the Badgers’ undefeated (18-0) all-time home record against Penn State intact.
Unlike many of Wisconsin’s recent games — against Indiana especially — Tuesday night’s opened with quick scoring and a true offensive flow for both teams. Crowl and Hepburn each scored early to give the Badgers a strong offensive start, capped off by Wahl’s first point back via the free throw line.
Unfortunately for Wahl, the rust from not playing for two weeks became obvious. His presence on offense helped calm the nerves of the likes of Hepburn and Essegian, but ultimately, Wahl missed or was blocked on too many shots to provide a truly positive impact.
Midway through the half, the Badgers fell into an expected scoring slump. Penn State, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the Big Ten, took advantage and grew a small lead.
However, the defensive intensity that was seen against Indiana and improved 3-point shooting allowed the Badgers to get back into the game as Hepburn, Klesmit and Essegian each dropped in a three.
After Wahl’s and-1 play that demonstrated a flash of what he was pre-injury, Klesmit took an elbow to the face from a Penn State guard. While Penn State scored on the 5 vs. 4 play, Klesmit was taken to the locker room with a bloody mouth and later was declared out for the rest of the game.
Following the injury right before half, the Badgers went ice-cold from everywhere on the floor in the final minutes, until Essegian stole the ball and dunked it emphatically with less than a minute remaining. Penn State took a six point lead into half.
The Steven Crowl show began to take front stage in the second half, as he quickly drilled a 3-pointer and followed up with clever spins and post moves. Crowl, undoubtedly Wisconsin’s best player on Tuesday and perhaps this season so far, recorded a game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds as he regained confidence after a turbulent performance against Indiana.
Backup for Crowl came in the form of 3-pointers from Hepburn and Wahl, who contributed 13 and 10 points, respectively. A coast-to-coast drive from Wahl and Davis’ first points since Illinois 10 days ago put the Badgers in control of the game with under five minutes to play, 56-53.
Penn State, though, is one of the best shooting teams in the conference, and their eight 3-pointers and 44% shooting from the field kept them in the game until the very end. Thankfully, Essegian’s late 3-pointer put Wisconsin up by four, as the Badgers’ star freshman has been a prolific shooter all season long.
The Nittany Lions again matched the Wisconsin 3-pointer and cut the Badger lead down to one. After almost two full minutes of missed shots, Hepburn drew a charge on defense and sank both free throws to gain a three point lead.
Back-to-back 3-point attempts from Penn State in the final seconds rattled off the rim, and Davis secured the final rebound for a 63-60 Wisconsin win.
Returning to form?
While Wahl did not have an outstanding night in any specific category, his presence on either end of the court was felt by both teams. His poise and playmaking were sorely missed by the Kohl Center crowd.
Postgame, Gard acknowledged the impact Wahl had on pulling out a win at home to end the losing streak: “Psychologically, it’s huge … He knows what [winning] is about,” he told the Big Ten Network.
In any Big Ten season, every team has to fight hard to earn wins. Thanks to Crowl’s dominant performance, Wahl’s return, Hepburn’s leadership, Essegian’s confidence and defensive intensity from every Badger on the floor, Wisconsin finally broke their three-game skid and reset sights on the top of the conference.
Unfortunately, the Badgers’ next game is in doubt due to COVID issues within Northwestern’s program. They already postponed their matchup against Iowa on Wednesday due to the situation, and odds are low that they will be healthy enough to face Wisconsin on Saturday. If canceled, the Badgers would next take action on Jan. 25 at Maryland on Big Ten Network. Tip off is set for 6 p.m.