On a blizzardy evening in Madison, Wisconsin (16-11, 8-9 Big Ten) took down Iowa (17-11, 9-8) in a Big Ten showdown that proved crucial for the Badgers, who were in dire need of a win to attempt to secure a bid in the NCAA Tournament.
The Badgers’ star freshman Connor Essegian lifted the team to a win with 17 points, accompanied by 12 from Chucky Hepburn and a double-double from Tyler Wahl in a much-improved offensive showing at home.
After yet another emotional pregame scene — this time in honor of the late former UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank — the Badgers set up in front of a packed white-out student section. While the rest of the Kohl Center was considerably less full, the student section showed up to give the Badgers a boost in a must-win game for the sake of a tournament bid.
Off the tip, Steven Crowl found his way inside quickly for a strong bucket, but the rest of the starters — Max Klesmit, Hepburn, Essegian and Wahl — struggled to break Iowa’s early full-court press.
The Badgers recorded four turnovers in the following three minutes as the offense quickly stagnated after Crowl’s solo bucket. This is uncharacteristic for coach Greg Gard’s team, who only average eight turnovers a game.
The Hawkeyes took advantage of the early mishaps and jumped out to a 10-4 lead courtesy of an impressive bucket from their star forward, Kris Murray. He scored inside on an and-1 play that saw Crowl pick up his second foul in just five minutes.
“It’s hard to sit … I was trying to stay loose. You can’t let your mind start floating, you have to stay engaged in the game,” Crowl said post-game, reflecting on his extended bench time due to foul trouble.
This early foul trouble saw Gard rely on his bench early, where Isaac Lindsey took the floor and immediately hit a jumper — his first points in four games. Wahl followed this up with a tough bucket inside to bring the Badgers back within two.
Essegian, who went scoreless from the field last game against Rutgers, drained a jumper to tie the game at 10. Wahl supported him with a personal four-point run that electrified the Kohl Center. However, Iowa jumped back out to a small lead after a string of questionable calls.
As Wisconsin continued to accumulate early fouls — seven in the first half alone — the deep bench support came in the form of Jordan Davis, Kamari McGee and Markus Ilver. These substitutes brought an immediate spark into the offense, as Davis and Ilver both got inside for baskets — Ilver’s first recorded points since Jan. 10 against Michigan State.
A 3-pointer from Essegian, who was previously 0-9 shooting dating back to the Rutgers game, gave Wisconsin a 22-20 lead with less than five minutes to play. Hepburn added a layup of his own.
In the closing seconds of the half, Hepburn got to the line and made his first free throw but missed the second — a common trend in terms of the team’s recent offensive struggles. Iowa’s Tony Perkins capitalized on yet another Badger turnover with a jumper, dropping Wisconsin’s lead to just one point at halftime, 27-26.
In the opening minutes of the second half, it was a battle of the big men. Crowl scored inside on a hook shot and added two energetic slam dunks, but Iowa’s Filip Rebraca worked his way into the paint to help Iowa stay within two.
Iowa’s Murray drilled a 3-pointer to deliver a silencing blow to the crowd, but Rebraca missed two free throws to kill the Hawkeyes’ momentum. Wisconsin posted a strong defensive stand afterwards and Hepburn laid a high ball in off the backboard to bring the Badgers within one point.
Gard reached down to his bench again for a small boost, and Davis delivered with a hard-earned offensive rebound for a score. Wahl followed up with a spin-and-score while also drawing a flopping call on Iowa — a technical foul on Perkins that gave Essegian a chance at free throws. However, the Badgers continued to struggle from the line — 55% for the game — as Essegian missed the shot.
Essegian made up for his miss, however, with a corner 3-pointer that gave the Badgers a 43-41 lead with 10 minutes to play. The Hawkeyes turned it over on the next possession, allowing Klesmit to hit a corner 3-pointer of his own to balloon the Badgers’ lead to five and bring the Kohl Center to its feet.
To the deafening dismay of the Wisconsin faithful, Crowl was called for a ghost foul call on the next possession, but Hepburn backed him up with yet another 3-pointer on the ensuing trip. However, Iowa’s quick offense got them a bucket on the other end of the floor to lower Wisconsin’s lead to four with seven minutes to play.
Both the Hawkeyes and the Badgers suffered a scoring drought — another typical offensive trend for Wisconsin — but Hepburn ended the Badgers’ struggles with two free throws. The Hawkeyes, however, struggled to score for over two minutes out of the last seven.
Iowa continued their intense full-court press late into the second half, but the Badgers figured out a way to get through the press in the closing minutes.
“Don’t throw it to them,” Gard explained post-game.
Essegian took advantage of the improved press break to get to the line for two important free throws. Hepburn hit a fadeaway jumper right after and followed it up with an inside dime to Carter Gilmore, bringing the Kohl Center to its feet once again.
Iowa’s Murray continued to find his way inside but failed to finish on multiple looks, thus allowing the Badgers to hold onto a 59-47 lead with three minutes to play. Gilmore grabbed an offensive rebound shortly after, and a series of acrobatic out-of-bounds saves from the likes of Wahl and Gilmore gave Gilmore a chance at the free throw line.
Iowa began their intentional late game fouling with two minutes still to play, giving Wisconsin a plethora of free throws to seal a big 64-52 win over Iowa. Gard subbed in his son, Isaac, as well as other members of the bench to dribble out the win.
Heating up in the dead of winter
This win, which took place in a considerably smaller crowd due to local storm conditions, was a significant step forward in terms of offensive production. When the Badgers needed it most, their starters stepped up to deliver a hot offensive performance, including Essegian’s large improvement compared to his colder performance last time out.
Also regaining his swagger is Wahl, who has struggled to match his pre-injury impact. His 11 points and 14 rebounds were essential to Wisconsin’s win.
“Tyler got his mojo going from how hard he played and those rebounds he was able to get his hands on,” Gard said postgame. “I told him before the game, ‘Just go play hard. Let the chips fall how they may.’”
While the starters delivered a strong performance, the bench must not be overlooked. The likes of Gilmore and Davis pulled down an offensive rebound each in crucial moments, and their constant high-effort gameplay has provided much-needed energy — even earning Gilmore “MVP” chants from the student section.
“Carter played great. He does a great job on using his leverage and getting low [on defense],” Crowl said after the game.
“He missed two [free throws], but we heard them,” he added, regarding the MVP chants.
Wisconsin will look to continue their momentum as they travel to Ann Arbor for a matchup with Michigan on Sunday, Feb. 26 — the second against the Wolverines in 12 days. Both teams will be looking for a resume-boosting win going into March. Tipoff can be found on CBS and the Badger Sports Network at 1 p.m.