The Michigan Wolverines (14-12, 8-7 Big Ten) paid a visit to the Wisconsin Badgers (15-10, 7-8) at the Kohl Center on Tuesday night in a rematch of last season’s game that ended with a fiery encounter between Michigan’s head coach, Juwan Howard, and the Badgers’ coaching staff.
Conveniently, the rematch took place on Valentine’s Day, certainly with hopes that the loving spirit would keep nerves calm as the Badgers emerged victorious again this time, 64-59.
Wisconsin came prepared, and so did the Kohl Center. The student section did not forget about last season, as they showered Howard with boos.
They also directed boos at Michigan’s star center, Hunter Dickinson, after he made crude comments towards the Badgers at the beginning of the season and walked into the arena Tuesday with a mask on to “steal a win” from the Kohl Center.
Fortunately, after dropping a 17 point lead at Nebraska over the weekend, Coach Greg Gard and his team took their business to the floor, managing to hold onto a second half lead as large as 12 to steal a win from the Wolverines.
Emotions ran high after a moment of silence was held prior to tip-off in remembrance of the tragedy that occurred on the Michigan State University campus just 23 hours prior to tip-off.
The Badgers’ unchanged starting five — Chucky Hepburn, Max Klesmit, Connor Essegian, Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl — once again took the court in their “By the Players” uniforms to celebrate Black History Month.
Off of the tip, Crowl kicked off the scoring quickly as he found himself being guarded by just one man — a rather uncommon strategy for Michigan as teams have been double-teaming Crowl effectively as of late. An early 3-pointer from Klesmit boosted the Badgers to the early lead.
While Wisconsin’s offense started hot, a turnover and a score — courtesy of an accidental tip into the Badgers’ basket by Crowl — gave the Wolverines their first lead of the game. However, when the Badgers needed a swing in momentum most, they turned to their sure-fire shooter, Essegian, for a deep 3-pointer.
As Dickinson and Crowl dueled down low, both offenses stalled out around the halfway point of the first. Crowl’s nifty shoulder-drop move on Dickinson opened the scoring back up, allowing the Badgers to pull off a quick four point run with help from Kamari McGee.
Wahl, who cooled off against Nebraska after a hot performance last week at Penn State, began to make his mark in the first half as he outhustled the Wolverines for an offensive rebound that led to free throws for Carter Gilmore. Wahl followed by drawing a charge, allowing Wisconsin to take the lead courtesy of a jam from Essegian.
Immediately following Essegian’s electrifying dunk, he and Klesmit both dropped in a 3-pointer, forcing Michigan to take a timeout as the Kohl Center crowd roared in support.
Dickinson came out of the timeout with a 3-pointer of his own, but Jordan Davis matched his shot immediately. However, an uncharacteristic turnover on the next offensive possession allowed Michigan to take the final shot of the half, which came in the form of a made 3-pointer.
The Wolverines took a 32-31 lead into halftime after turning the heat up from 3-point land in the closing minutes.
In the opening minutes of the second half, the Badgers gave up an offensive rebound for a Michigan bucket then immediately missed a layup — two recent recurring issues. Thankfully for the Badgers, Klesmit finished in the paint quickly after on a pass from Crowl and Davis scored on a put-back finish, seemingly ridding the Badgers of inside missed shots for the moment.
Michigan continued their late first-half shooting momentum thanks to Kobe Bufkin, who took over the early second half with multiple scoring plays back-to-back — a quick personal run that contributed to his 21 points in the game. Not amused with Bufkin’s emergence was Crowl, who took matters into his own hands in the form of a personal 5-0 run to put the Badgers back up 46-40 with just over 13 minutes to play.
On the other end of the court, Crowl continued to have his way with Dickinson, too. He held Dickinson scoreless for over 13 minutes to start the second half, with help from Gilmore.
However, the Wolverines responded by running their offense through their guard, Bufkin. He took over the middle minutes of the second half, helping Michigan to a 12-1 run that saw Wisconsin’s lead dwindle to as little as two points.
Also contributing to the Wolverine run was the lack of offense from the Badgers, who ended up going scoreless from the field for the final 10:45 of the game. Missed layups were a huge contributing factor of this drought, and Gard recognized this issue.
“We’re starting practice [on Thursday] with layup lines,” Gard remarked after the game.
The only points the Badgers could muster were free throws. While free-throw shooting has been a glaring issue this season — just 66% as a team — Wisconsin got to the line 18 times on Tuesday night, resulting in a much improved 77% from the line on the night.
Essegian alone shot 9-for-10, most of which came in the second half, especially thanks to a technical foul called on Juwan Howard. This, combined with his 50% shooting from the field and two 3-pointers, allowed the freshman to post a career and game high 23 points.
Wisconsin’s lack of scoring allowed Michigan back into the game, yet the Badgers did work hard on the defensive end to force multiple missed shots and turnovers in the late minutes of the game.
A steal by Hepburn with less than a minute left in the game allowed Wisconsin to shoot free throws the rest of the way and build a late four point lead, effectively sealing the game.
Quiet leaders prove most important
While Essegian’s explosive game is the largest fan takeaway of the win, countless other Badgers, both starters and reserves, contributed in massive ways.
Although Crowl finished with just 11 points, his 12 rebounds and six assists earned him a double-double and praise from the Wolverines.
“The big fella is a big, big factor,” said Howard after the game, as he praised Crowl’s performance as a crucial piece of “a very well coached team.”
Also flying under the radar were the two players who saw minutes coming off the bench — Davis and McGee. Davis’ multiple offensive rebounds provided second chance opportunities, as he, along with Crowl, followed their coach’s instructions.
“Coach has been on us about offensive rebounding,” Crowl said post-game. “He’s talked to us about playing with our hair on fire.”
The improvements were clear, as the Badgers outrebounded Michigan, recording 15 offensive rebounds.
McGee, in his highest minute count as a Badger, provided sparks on both sides of the ball on his way to a season-high six points in the game.
“My confidence is always high, but this was an extra boost,” McGee said after the game as he recognized his improved gameplay.
“It’s through the roof now,” he added with a grin.
While this win over Michigan will certainly help Wisconsin’s resume as Selection Sunday approaches, the Badgers know there’s more work to be done if a March Madness bid is to be earned.
“We can’t be satisfied with a win tonight. We have to come back and win on Saturday, and for the rest of the season,” Crowl stated.
“If you don’t play good basketball right now, down the road isn’t going to happen,” added Gard.
Wisconsin will look to continue their improving offense against Rutgers on Feb. 18. The Kohl Center will host the Scarlet Knights for the first and only time this season, as Wisconsin will have to match up with another star center in Rutgers’ Clifford Omoruyi — an all-Big Ten first team candidate averaging 13.5 points and almost 10 rebounds per game. Tipoff on Saturday at 11 a.m. can be found live on the Big Ten Network and the Badger Sports Network.
A note on East Lansing
The pre-tipoff moment of silence created palpable emotion that unified the Kohl Center crowd, owing proper attention to a far more important matter.
Both universities, as well as the entire Big Ten, have shown impressive and respectable class and decency toward the Michigan State community and everyone affected by the senseless shootings Monday. Both head coaches confirmed post-game they had spoken to their players as well as Michigan State’s Coach Izzo and others prior to the game.
They, along with everyone at The Daily Cardinal, hope to remember and honor those who have been affected and share positivity, love and hopes for future change.