As temperatures in Madison began to thaw out the snow, the Badgers’ basketball team seemed to thaw out their offense on Wednesday night. Wisconsin (14-9, 6-7 Big Ten) traveled to Penn State (14-10, 5-8) for a crucial Big Ten matchup between two March Madness bubble teams.
In many bracketology predictions, Wisconsin and Penn State both currently sit around the “first four out” range, proving this matchup essential in separating the two teams for a bid in the tournament.
As the Badgers traveled to State College to complete the regular season sweep of Penn State, they took with the heavy loss suffered at home on Sunday to Northwestern and, more importantly, the offensive struggle that came with the loss. Wisconsin mustered just 52 points at the beginning of the week, but the need for a win in the final weeks of the season propelled their offense to a new level.
Thanks to a season-high 58% shooting, Wisconsin scored their highest point count of the calendar year so far on Penn State in a 79-74 overtime win. The reemergence of Tyler Wahl headlined the Badgers’ rebirthed offense, as he recorded 16 points and a career-high eight assists.
Coming off of a fiery five 3-pointer performance, freshman Connor Essegian led the Badgers into action alongside last game’s leading scorer, Chucky Hepburn, as well as Max Klesmit, Wahl and Steven Crowl. The first bucket of Wahl’s dominant performance got the Badgers on the board and a Hepburn 3-pointer on a kick pass from Crowl gave Wisconsin a quick start.
As teams continue to double team Crowl in the paint, Wisconsin has learned to adapt their offense. With his rediscovered confidence, Wahl took hold of the offense early and helped orchestrate 3-pointers from Essegian and Jordan Davis by drawing defenders in and making the extra pass.
A crafty spin and score followed by an easy layup for Crowl saw the Badgers take a 22-16 lead midway through the first half — a quick four of his 11 points in the game. Out of the media timeout, though, Penn State took advantage of the stoppage in play and built a small 4-0 run led by their star guard, Jalen Pickett. Despite Pickett’s leadership and eventual team-leading 17 points, the Badgers countered the Nittany Lions’ late first half run with yet another 3-pointer from Essegian.
In the closing minutes of the half, neither team found their way to the hoop effectively, as both defenses stepped up. A steal from Wahl — one of five for the Badgers — and a score from Davis in the closing seconds gave Wisconsin a seemingly sturdy 35-29 lead at halftime.
Second half and overtime
A sloppy, foul-filled start to the second half, which later came to haunt both teams, saw Penn State close the gap again in the opening minutes of the half. However, a strong score inside from Klesmit followed by a transition three from Hepburn shook Wisconsin out of their second half offensive funk.
The supporting cast contributed well to Wisconsin’s second half scoring, as Davis hit another 3-pointer on his way to a quiet yet important eight point performance. But, as Davis began to put on a show, the referee crew chose to do the same. A torrent of foul calls on the Badgers in a single possession put Penn State in the bonus with over 12 minutes still to play, effectively sucking any momentum out of Wisconsin’s second half start.
With the clock ticking towards seven minutes to play, Penn State’s three was matched by another from Hepburn, as he torched the Nittany Lions in the second half — he finished with a game high 19 points after only scoring three in the first half.
Right behind Hepburn was Essegian, as he silenced a Penn State run with a deep three on his way to 18 points in the game. Nonetheless, Penn State — the best 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten by percentage — hit two back-to-back to take a 62-59 lead, the first time the Nittany Lions led since the 8-7 mark in the first half.
In the late minutes, Hepburn stepped up yet again. His confidence on defense led to a charge call on Penn State, which Hepburn capitalized on with a bold 3-pointer just a step in from the logo. Essegian swiped the ball from Penn State soon after and Hepburn nailed another 3-pointer, this time in step-back fashion.
Penn State’s Seth Lundy — one of the most efficient 3-point shooters in the nation — came back down the court and hit a clutch three of his own, tying the game at 68. A miss in the final seconds from Wisconsin provided free basketball for everyone.
Wahl continued to dominate the paint in overtime, as he took a quick trip to the free throw line just seconds into the extra period. Immediately following Wahl’s one-for-two trip, Essegian fired his deepest three of the game to put the Badgers up four.
On the other hand, Penn State’s three point shooting cooled off dramatically in overtime, as consecutive misses allowed the Badgers to secure their lead for the rest of overtime. Two free throws from Hepburn sealed the deal and Wisconsin left the Bryce Jordan Center with a 79-74 overtime victory.
Postgame, head coach Greg Gard recognized the Badgers’ improving form after picking up the second win in three games.
“Screw losing,” he said on the Big Ten Network. “We want to win.”
A whole new look
The offensive poise and production from Wisconsin on Tuesday night was nothing like what we’ve seen from this team in months. You would have to look all the way back to the win over Western Michigan on Dec. 30 for their last night with over 70 points.
Clearly, the return of Wahl’s offensive game made a massive difference, and Wahl himself recognized his much-needed return, saying, “It’s good to see a couple [shots] go down. That was fun. Everyone was playing their role, so it was easy for me.”
Coach Gard also recognized the important return of Wahl’s confidence, saying, “He played with an aggressiveness that he’s been missing. He’s finally doing some things we all know Tyler Wahl [could do] before his injury.”
Of course, Wahl wasn’t alone. Hepburn’s 19 points, Essegian’s 18, Crowl’s 11 and Davis’ eight all contributed to a well-rounded offensive performance, capped off with much improved late game management. After the loss to Northwestern in the final moments, it is clear that lessons have been learned, especially visible by Hepburn’s improved decision making in overtime Wednesday night.
With the regular season sweep of Penn State under their belts and a fifth Quad I win this season to bolster their March Madness resume, Wisconsin will shift focus to their only matchup this season against Nebraska. The Badgers will look to make it three wins in four games in Lincoln on Feb. 11 at 3 p.m. Tipoff on the road can be found live on the Big Ten Network and the Badger Sports Network.