The whole season, coach Greg Gard and the Wisconsin men’s basketball team have been playing with fate. Out of the 23 games played prior to Feb. 11, 14 of those games have been decided by five or less points — the most in the country.
While Wisconsin (14-10, 6-8 Big Ten) is 9-5 in such games, playing close like that all season caught up to the Badgers as they visited Nebraska (12-14, 5-10) on Saturday afternoon.
It took overtime in this tight game to find a winner, where Nebraska capitalized on a fatigued Wisconsin team and emerged as winners, 73-63.
With a lineup unchanged from Wednesday’s offensive explosion at Penn State — Chucky Hepburn, Max Klesmit, Connor Essegian, Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl — the Badgers got off to a hot start once again. Klesmit’s early drive to the hoop followed by a wide-open 3-pointer gave Wisconsin an early lead.
Hepburn, who was born and raised just an hour from the University of Nebraska’s campus in Lincoln, started his hot scoring night early, too, as he drilled a fadeaway jumper from the baseline that’s seeming to become one his signature shots. A return to his home state undoubtedly fueled Hepburn, as he finished with a team-high 19 points.
A few uncharacteristic turnovers from Wisconsin allowed Nebraska to close the gap in the opening minutes, but a 3-point barrage from Essegian, Klesmit and Jordan Davis propelled Wisconsin to a 12-2 run, capped off by a score inside from Crowl and a drive from Klesmit.
On the other end of the floor, though, Wisconsin’s usually stout defense was struggling. Nebraska found their way to the hoop with ease, scoring at will from anywhere inside the paint. The Cornhuskers ripped off their own 9-0 run to close the gap previously built by the Badgers, only to finally see their run snapped by a jumper from Essegian and another fadeaway from Hepburn.
After Nebraska’s run, the defense woke up again. A steal and score from Davis, followed by a stop that led to a Hepburn 3-pointer, put Wisconsin up 32-23 with 30 seconds left. Following another strong defensive stop, Gard drew up a perfect play that gave Essegian a wide-open 3-pointer for a 35-24 lead at halftime.
Second half, overtime
The defensive dominance that helped close out the first half did not fade coming out of the break. The Badgers immediately stole the ball, allowing Crowl to score inside in transition. Essegian and Hepburn both hit another 3-pointer each on the following possessions, giving Wisconsin another early run and a 17 point lead.
The issue for the rest of the game, as it has been countless times this season, became closing the game out. With some help from the referees — three straight foul calls on Wisconsin in one possession — the Cornhuskers pulled out a fiery 14-2 run to close the gap to just five, largely thanks to Keisei Tominaga’s 22 points on 45% shooting from three.
Tominaga’s 3-pointer shooting torched Wisconsin in the second half, as his back-to-back shots gave Nebraska a 48-45 lead. Hepburn matched Tominaga on the second one with a three of his own, but Nebraska’s second half shooting continued to keep them in the game as the time ticked down.
With just a minute and a half remaining, Hepburn — as he’s done in seemingly countless games now — fired a deep 3-pointer that fell way short. Nebraska’s attempt at a lead-taking bucket was crucially blocked by Crowl, allowing Wisconsin to call a timeout and set up for the last play of the game.
Out of the timeout, Hepburn took the ball at the top of the key and dribbled the clock down to the final seconds, where he took another deep 3-pointer that missed again. Gard’s timeout play calling certainly did not call for what Hepburn decided to do, and the visible frustration between the two of them took the game into overtime tied at 61.
Thanks to the foul-calling spree in the second half, both Davis and Klesmit ended up fouling out of the game with overtime still to play, leaving the Badgers with a tired and depleted bench for the extra period.
Wahl scored right away in overtime — two of his mere six points — to put Wisconsin up. However, that would be the only points the Badgers would score in the entire overtime period. Missed high-percentage shots, bad shot selection, turnovers and missed free throws all combined for a four minute drought to end the game.
Naturally, as Wisconsin’s offense completely fell asleep in overtime, Nebraska took full advantage with support from their home crowd. Twelve unanswered points in the extra five minutes saw Nebraska take a 10 point lead by the end of overtime, as they defeated Wisconsin 73-63.
The clutch gene is disappearing
After ending the 2021-22 season with a buzzer-beater 3-pointer for a share of the Big Ten regular season title, Hepburn has played hero ball for the majority of this season. While he has certainly been clutch in many situations, the missed opportunities in important moments are beginning to stick out more and more.
Of course, no single player can be at fault for such a frustrating loss. Blowing a 17 point second-half lead is undoubtedly a team issue, and it’s one that must be addressed immediately.
The Badgers have failed to close out game after game, and whether their biggest lead is 17 or two, Wisconsin often fails to pull through in the closing moments.
While 63 points is not the worst offensive output of the season by any means, whatever good feelings fans may have had after the Penn State performance have disappeared. After erupting for 16 points and eight assists, Wahl’s confidence seemed to disintegrate throughout Saturday’s game, as his struggles to finish in the paint returned.
Even Crowl, who was not double teamed for most of the game, only managed to score eight points. He was averaging close to 20 earlier in the season before teams began double-teaming.
With this loss to Nebraska, Wisconsin’s tournament hopes take yet another hit. After seemingly salvaging their season with a convincing win at Penn State, losing to one of the worst teams in the Big Ten will severely damage the Badgers’ resume — especially based on the difficulty of Wisconsin’s remaining schedule.
Wisconsin will take the floor with a chance at a crucial win on Feb. 14 at the Kohl Center. The Badgers and the Michigan Wolverines will face off for a Valentine’s Day date for their first of two meetings in the next two weeks. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. and can be found live on ESPN2 and the Badger Sports Network.