The Wisconsin Badgers (11-2, 3-0 Big Ten) kicked off the Big Ten portion of their schedule in true Big Ten fashion — with a frustratingly inconsistent offensive yet strong defensive performance. The Badgers ultimately pulled out a victory over the Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-7, 0-3) at home, 63-60.
Junior Steven Crowl led Wisconsin with 17 points on 61% shooting. Right behind him, point guard Chucky Hepburn tallied 16 points and the game-clinching steal. Two of Wisconsin’s three primary stars stepped up in the absence of the other, after senior forward Tyler Wahl rolled his ankle in the first half.
The Badgers entered the night riding a five-game win streak and No. 14 spot in the AP Poll. Minnesota’s season has been less than grand, as they sit at the bottom of the Big Ten in conference and total record.
Wisconsin looked to begin the conference season with another win, while the Gophers just wanted to establish some sort of presence in the Big Ten.
Like most Wisconsin games this season, this one started ugly. It took nearly two minutes for the first basket to fall — a Wahl turn-around floater in the post over tight defense. Minnesota forward Joshua Ola-Joseph followed with a similar basket on the next possession.
Back-to-back baskets didn’t create any game momentum, as the ensuing minutes were full of poor shooting and turnovers. The score remained 2-2 for over six minutes. A 3-pointer from Connor Essegian finally broke the drought.
After Minnesota mounted a 10-2 run, Wahl exited to the locker room during a TV timeout. The senior forward rolled his ankle after going up for an offensive rebound two game minutes prior and played through the injury before exiting.
Three straight Wisconsin field goals — all either made or assisted by Hepburn — capped off a 10-4 run with 8:25 left in the half. The Badgers’ 19-15 lead would be the highest until the end of the first half, as the game teetered back and forth with neither team able to take control.
Minnesota’s season leader in points per game, sophomore Dawson Garcia, finally began to contribute, scoring his first five points within two and a half minutes.
The end of the first half belonged to the Badgers. A Hepburn 3-pointer gave Wisconsin the 27-26 lead with 2:34 left. Hepburn followed with another 3-pointer on the very next possession, this time a step-back. Max Klesmit’s layup with 1:25 left were the last points of the half, as Wisconsin went into the locker room with a 32-26 lead.
The first half star was Chucky Hepburn, who scored 11 points and went 3-3 from beyond the arc. Despite sloppy offensive play for most of the half, the Badgers still had a comfortable lead, likely due to a 14-1 advantage in points off turnovers.
Wahl was ruled out at the start of the second half, yet remained in good spirits on the bench. Carter Gilmore replaced him as a second half starter.
Crowl began the period with a 3-pointer followed by a tough post lay-in, capping off a 15-0 Badger run. The junior center then assisted a Klesmit 3-pointer at the top of the arc, giving Wisconsin the largest lead of the game from either team — 45-30 with 16:19 left.
Most of the second half featured a cycle of the Badgers building a comfortable lead, then allowing the Gophers to chip away at the deficit and remain in reach.
Minnesota’s second leading scorer, Jamison Battle, drained back-to-back 3-pointers to cut it to seven with 13 minutes left. However, Wisconsin jumped back out to a comfortable 12-point lead.
Yet, miraculously, Minnesota cut the deficit to three in less than two minutes off of baskets on four straight possessions, 54-51.
A closer game meant a return to offensive stagnation. Between the 10:30 and 4:02 marks, the teams fared only one basket each — a Battle layup and Jordan Davis 3-pointer on back-to-back possessions. Hepburn led Wisconsin back to a comfortable 61-54 lead with two free throws and an assist on a Crowl dunk.
Baskets were hard to come by in the final three minutes as the defenses tightened up, with Klesmit and Crowl providing impressive perimeter defense on two Minnesota misses from beyond the arc.
The Gophers, once again, went on a short scoring run to cut the lead. Garcia made two free throws then blew by Crowl for an open layup a minute later. Point guard Ta’lon Cooper scored an up-and-over layup to cut it to 63-60 with 27 seconds left — the final points of the game.
Mistakes by Crowl gave the Gophers hope in the final seconds. His poor pass was bailed out by Jaden Henley stepping out of bounds. Then, with nine seconds left, Crowl had the opportunity to put the game out of reach with a free throw, but missed.
Minnesota secured the defensive rebound and had a chance to send the game to overtime. With zero timeouts, Cooper quickly led them up the court. Before he could even attempt to score, Hepburn pick-pocketed him after sneaking around a screen — securing possession and the win for Wisconsin.
A frustrating introduction to conference play
The beginning of the season was marked by the Badgers’ core — Hepburn, Wahl and Crowl — trying to find comfort as leaders, at least on the court. The 2021-22 season was dominated by Johnny Davis and Brad Davison, whose production and usage led the Badgers to success but also relegated the current stars to lesser roles.
That task was even more difficult Tuesday night considering the loss of Wahl, the team’s leading scorer. Despite a victory, the new stars still experienced some rough patches.
Hepburn’s final two minutes consisted of both bone-headed and game-saving plays. He missed an open 3-pointer then made a contested layup off the glass over Garcia. He lost control of the basketball, resulting in a jump ball and turnover, then had the game-sealing steal on the Gophers’ final possession.
As for Crowl, the big man is starting to exceed expectations, especially as a scorer. This was the third consecutive game in which he led the team in points.
The unsung hero of the night was Klesmit. The transfer from Wofford has become one of the most valuable Badgers this season — a tough defender who accepts his role and can hit a big shot when he needs to. Klesmit limited Battle, a key scorer for the Gophers, to 33% shooting.
“I thought he was terrific, once he figured out what he was about, how he played. I thought he was excellent, his first time guarding [Battle],” coach Greg Gard said of Klesmit, per the Big Ten Network. “Tyler [Wahl] goes out in the first half — that’s our best defensive player, our most versatile guy — so credit to our other guys on having to step up and step in and help out.”
As for Wahl’s health going forward, the head coach remained optimistic. “I think he’ll be alright but he’s going to take a day or so to get ready,” Gard said with a smile.
The last 3-0 Badger start in the Big Ten was in 2014-15, when Wisconsin reached the NCAA Tournament Championship — a positive omen as conference play heats up.
Wisconsin will next play in Champaign for a matchup against the Illinois Fighting Illini on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 12:30 p.m. on ESPN2.
Donnie Slusher is the sports editor for the Daily Cardinal. He has written multiple breaking news stories, sports columns and an in-depth examination of race in Wisconsin football. Follow Donnie on Twitter at @DonnieSlusher_