In a rematch of the rescheduled loss at the end of January, Wisconsin (13-10, 5-7 Big Ten) welcomed the Northwestern Wildcats (17-7, 7-5) to the Kohl Center for a Sunday evening duel. The possibility of missing March Madness tournament bids loomed large for both teams.
Even in front of a large home crowd — encouraged by the midweek victory in Ohio State — the Wildcats bested Wisconsin in the late minutes of the game, 54-52, completing their regular season season sweep of the Badgers. Both losses were decided by less than four points, highlighting the inability of Greg Gard’s team to close out games in the late minutes against conference opponents.
Gard’s unchanged starting lineup — Chucky Hepburn, Max Klesmit, Connor Essegian, Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl — took the floor for tipoff wearing the team’s black “By the Players” uniforms, proudly representing the University of Wisconsin-Madison in celebration of Black History Month. This was further supported by the performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” alongside the Star Spangled Banner.
With emotions and energy high, the Badgers won the tipoff and started off hot. Klesmit, who played a monster game on defense against Ohio State, got the Badgers started on offense with a 3-pointer. Hepburn added his own wide open 3-pointer for an impressive start from beyond the arc for the Badgers.
The Wildcats’ dual threat backcourt of Chase Audige and Boo Buie went to work early on Wisconsin, getting in the lane for quick scores as they eventually scored a team-leading 13 and 11 points respectively. In the paint for Northwestern, the big man combination of Matthew Nicholson and Robbie Beran put up shots early, too, employing an early double-team strategy on Wisconsin’s Crowl.
Even with the hot shooting start from the Badgers, Northwestern took an early 12-6 lead as Wisconsin’s offense fell into one of their frequent scoring droughts around the midway point of the first half. The lack of defensive rebounding allowed Northwestern to secure six offensive boards, many of which provided second-chance scoring opportunities in the first half.
A silky 3-pointer from Essegian — the first of his team-high five 3-pointers — broke the Badgers’ first half scoring struggles, but Northwestern continued to score seemingly at-will. Gard looked to his bench rotation for a spark, which came in the form of a steal-and-score from Kamari McGee.
Following another 3-pointer from Essegian, Carter Gilmore — another valuable bench player getting increasing minutes — helped the Badgers force two consecutive turnovers. The only issue was that Wisconsin failed to score on each of these opportunities in the closing minutes of the half, still trailing by five.
In a last second transition play, Wahl drove straight through the Northwestern defense and finished with a crafty layup at the buzzer, contributing two of just five total points in the game. Northwestern took a lead into half, 26-23.
In a continuation of his first half performance, Essegian came out firing in the second, drilling two 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the second half. His personal 6-0 run — a part of his 15 game points — gave the Badgers a 32-30 lead with additional support from a Hepburn 3-pointer.
WIth the crowd rejuvenated by the run, Northwestern took it upon themselves to silence the Kohl Center quickly. Double-teaming down low and executing efficiently put the Wildcats back in the lead with less than 12 minutes to play.
Emerging again to break the lull in action was Hepburn, as his 3-pointer broke the second half scoring drought. He followed it up with two free throws — a rare occurrence considering the team’s overall 45 percent shooting from the line. Hepburn worked to control the late minutes of the game, eventually scoring a game-high 17 points.
Even with some questionable calls from the referee crew, only three points separated the two teams with less than five minutes to play. Yet, another 3-pointer from Essegian — living up well to his endearing “CE3” nickname — handed a late lead for Wisconsin, but the relentless paint scoring from Northwestern continued to deliver. The Wildcats attempted eight less threes than Wisconsin, clearly finding offensive success from effective interior scoring.
In what seems to be a common recurrence this season, Hepburn took matters into his own hands down the stretch as he ran an isolation play and nailed a fadeaway jumper for a one point lead, 49-48. Northwestern fired back and Hepburn attempted another fadeaway jumper, unfortunately with no success. Free throw shooting in front of the student section secured the game for the Wildcats, as they downed the Badgers, 54-52.
Where have the Badgers’ leaders gone?
While the Badgers did not have the most impressive scoring trends early in the season, there is no doubt that any offensive production once present has almost completely disappeared. Spotlighted in the missing headlines are Crowl and Wahl, who combined for just 10 points against Northwestern.
Wahl, who led the team in scoring before missing multiple games due to injury, seems to have lost all ability to control Wisconsin’s offensive flow, whether it be scoring himself or controlling play like he used to. Additionally, Crowl — averaging close to 20 points per game in early Big Ten play — failed to score double digits in four of the last seven games.
On the bright side, the freshman star has been shining bright. Fifteen points on five 3-pointers from Essegian helps him continue his prolific scoring performances, as he’s contributed at least 10 points in seven of his last eight games, dating all the way back to Jan. 10.
As March Madness hopes seem to wither away with each game, the Badgers will attempt to salvage their chances at a bid in the tournament next in a rematch against Penn State — one of the few Big Ten teams the Badgers defeated this season. The game tips off in State College at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 8 and can be found live on the Big Ten Network and the Badger Sports Network.