The Wisconsin Badgers (15-11, 7-9 Big Ten) played host to Rutgers (17-10, 9-7) in the only matchup between these two teams this season — and just the 12th meeting all-time. The Scarlet Knights, who have been on the wrong end of a three game skid, ended the Badgers’ regained momentum from the big win over Michigan on Valentine’s Day, as Rutgers won 58-57.
While Rutgers entered the game without one of their starters — Caleb McConnell, a defensive cornerstone — Wisconsin looked to capitalize with their recent offensive improvements. However, after scoring a career-high 23 points on Tuesday, Wisconsin’s Connor Essegian went 0-7 from three and scoreless as they lost in the final seconds.
Greg Gard’s starting five — Chucky Hepburn, Max Klesmit, Tyler Wahl, Steven Crowl and Essegian — looked to take advantage of an energetic home crowd rejuvenated by the Badgers’ home win just a few days before. Hepburn sank a step-back 3-pointer to open the scoring, and Wisconsin followed up with two straight forced turnovers on defense.
Klesmit joined in on the early 3-point shooting by drilling a wide open shot off of a ball fake. Rutgers’ Cam Spencer, a senior transfer from Loyola Maryland, opened his scoring early and responded with three 3-pointers in a row, giving Rutgers an early 11-7 lead.
Gard reached to his bench early for a spark after a few of his starters picked up early fouls, and he found exactly what he was looking for in Jordan Davis. Davis, whose brother, Johnny Davis, was the honorary captain on Saturday afternoon as a part of last year’s Big Ten championship team, immediately hit a 3-pointer followed by a bucket inside to break the Scarlet Knights’ run.
Kamari McGee, who also showed out off the bench against Michigan, made an early impact as well. He drew a charge on Spencer, whose second foul happened just a few minutes into the game. However, even as Spencer subbed out, Rutgers created another short scoring run to regain a four point lead.
The Badgers found an answer to the run in the form of a slam dunk from Crowl, followed by a corner 3-pointer from McGee — just his third 3-pointer of the season. Crowl scored inside once again off a dime pass from Essegian, but Rutgers came back down and hit a three to end the Badgers’ quick 7-0 run.
Spencer checked back in for Rutgers with a few minutes to play in the half, and he did not look back. He drilled another 3-pointer for an absurd 19 points in the first half, but Wisconsin responded in the closing minutes with a few tough baskets inside courtesy of Davis and Wahl.
Nonetheless, Spencer’s first half performance torched the Badgers and helped him record his second highest scoring game of his Rutgers career.
In the final second of the half, Klesmit drained his second 3-pointer of the day to drop the deficit to just two points at the half as Rutgers led 36-34.
Crowl opened the second half with a rare 3-pointer — three of his eight points in the game. However, Rutgers’ big man Clifford Omoruyi responded with his own three point play. Wahl dished to Hepburn for another corner three in response, giving Wisconsin a 43-42 lead after five minutes.
Crowl, who has been double teamed in the post by almost every opponent since Big Ten play started, employed this tactic with Wahl on Omoruyi, forcing a stop that led to an and-1 play for Wahl on the other end. Wahl’s score helped the Badgers cling to a one point lead, also largely thanks to silence from Spencer. After scoring 19 in the first half, he only managed three points in the whole second half, which was a large help for Wisconsin to stay in the game.
After Hepburn picked up his fourth foul with 10 minutes to play, both teams endured a scoring drought that lasted almost five minutes, until Spencer hit his only three of the half to break it. McGee, who picked up Hepburn’s minutes, responded with his second 3-pointer of the game, and Klesmit followed up with a three of his own to give Wisconsin a 51-50 lead. Davis piled on a third from beyond the arc — three of his team high 14 points.
Hepburn checked back in for the last two minutes of the game as Rutgers tied the game at 54. McGee came up huge once again with his third 3-pointer, giving the Badgers a one point lead and earning himself a personal Wisconsin career-high nine points.
Rutgers retook the lead with a putback dunk with less than two minutes to play, which proved to be the last score of the game. The Badgers and the Scarlet Knights traded multiple empty possessions in the closing minute and a half, and Wisconsin got the last possession of the game with a chance to win. However, Essegian missed a floater and the second chance shot afterwards. Time ran out, giving the Scarlet Knights a one point win, 58-57.
One step forward, one step backwards
With their ninth loss in the Big Ten, Gard’s Badgers continue to sit right on the edge of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Their win over Michigan moved them into tournament seeding, according to many bracketology predictions, and after the loss they will likely shift back to the outside of the bubble.
With just four games remaining in the season — three of which will be more difficult tests against the top half of the Big Ten standings — Wisconsin’s chances at a lifeline for March are dwindling. Emerging problems continue to change. In early January, scoring was impossible. In late January, rebounding and free-throw shooting damaged the Badgers nearly every game. Now, leadership seems to be faltering.
The likes of Wahl, Hepburn, Crowl and Essegian were expected to lead Wisconsin to a strong Big Ten season. But, each of these players have turned out to be extremely streaky in their recent play. Wahl has lost his mojo since his injury, Hepburn struggled to score after picking up four fouls, Crowl has dropped off in offensive efficiency and Essegian went scoreless from the field just days after a fiery performance.
While the bench guys — McGee and Davis, especially — have provided a lot of helpful support in the past few days, the lack of leadership from the “main guys” has Wisconsin struggling to find a path toward consistent winning.
The Badgers will look to bounce back in their penultimate home game of the season, as they host Iowa in hopes of recording a season sweep of the Hawkeyes. Tipoff on Feb. 22 is at 8 p.m. and can be found live on the Big Ten Network and the Badger Sports Network.