A rollercoaster of emotion would be an understatement in describing Thursday night as the Wisconsin Badgers (13-8, 5-6 Big Ten) managed to hold onto their lead late and defeat Ohio State (11-11, 3-8 Big Ten) on the road.
In a matchup of struggling Big Ten teams — Ohio State losing seven of their previous eight and the Badgers six of their previous seven — both entered with a single goal in mind: win at all costs. Any chances of salvaging a March Madness bid and saving future hopes for this season went through Columbus on Thursday night.
Wisconsin held a lead as large as 18 in the early minutes of the second half but almost gave the Buckeyes a route all the way back into the game. In the final minutes, Ohio State’s comeback sputtered and Wisconsin pulled out a potentially season-saving win in Columbus, 65-60.
Surprisingly, the Badgers’ offensive firepower was on full display in the opening minutes of the game — freshman Connor Essegian opened the scoring with a quick five points, supported by a 3-pointer from Max Klesmit. Joining the two guards in starting roles were Chucky Hepburn, Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl, each of whom scored early in the game.
Hepburn ran rampant early as his mid-range jumper opened his 15 point scoring evening, almost all of which came in the first. The reemergence of Crowl also helped, as his personal 7-0 run boosted the Badgers to a 17-10 lead with eight minutes played.
A lull in action came about halfway through the first — as always — but Wahl and Crowl were able to find their ways in the paint to push Wisconsin through. Support from an Essegian three and a steal from Klesmit increased the Wisconsin lead to 10.
As fouls littered the late minutes of the first half, momentum threatened to drop out of Wisconsin’s hands, but a 3-pointer from Hepburn helped continue to build a lead as the Badgers led 33-18 with just four minutes left.
Ohio State’s sporadic runs came often in the game, and one in the closing minutes of the first half — led by their star freshman Brice Sensabaugh — seemed to be gaining some momentum until Sensabaugh received a flagrant foul for purposely shoving Wahl. Free throws from this call tore Ohio State’s hopes at a first half comeback apart, which was only further exacerbated by the ejection of the Buckeyes’ head coach, Chris Holtmann. His tantrum over a questionable call in the final seconds of the half allowed Essegian to make four straight free throws, giving Wisconsin a 43-27 lead at halftime.
As the Columbus crowd continued to display their dissatisfaction with the first half antics, the Badgers took advantage of the disorientated Buckeyes. Klesmit scored four straight in the opening minutes on his way to 12 total points. A crafty spin move from Crowl in the post ensured the Badgers held a solid 15 point lead with just 13 minutes left.
While the defense in the first half was sensational — forcing 10 turnovers and allowing just 27 points — the intensity seemed to drop a touch as the Buckeyes were able to score easier. This came mostly in the paint, as Wisconsin continued to struggle on the rebounding front and allowed Ohio State to grab 12 offensive rebounds for second chance opportunities throughout the game.
Nonetheless, Wisconsin kept control of the game, as Ohio State’s Sensabaugh fouled out on an over-the-back call and Klesmit buried a 3-pointer shortly after. However, right after Essegian followed up with a put-back basket — two of his game-leading 17 points — the Badgers endured a scoring drought that lasted almost eight minutes, only broken in the last seconds of the game.
During this detrimental drought, the Buckeyes took advantage of countless opportunities to score unanswered points, opening up an 11-0 run throughout the last six minutes of the game. Even with defensive plays from Essegian and Crowl, more missed free throws and the simple inability to score allowed the Buckeyes to close the deficit to just two points, as they trailed 62-60 with less than two minutes left.
While the Badgers shot just 59% from the free throw line in Columbus, Hepburn’s free throws did eventually seal the game for Wisconsin. He dropped in three late ones to finally kill Ohio State’s second half comeback attempt and secure the 65-60 win.
The good, the bad and the (very) ugly
Wisconsin’s offensive performance in the first half was certainly a sign of improvement. For the first time in what feels like months, the Badgers were able to score at will.
The starters were especially impactful. In particular, Crowl shot six-for-10 from the field for 14 points, and Hepburn’s first half combined with his late free throws gave him 15. Klesmit also contributed 12 of his own behind Essegian’s game high.
Four players scoring in double digits was miraculous based on their recent performances, so — even though the offense dropped off late in the game — the overall scoring performance was an improvement.
Also good was the defense. Holding Ohio State to just 60 points when they’ve been averaging over 70 a game was no small feat, as was keeping Sensabaugh to just 13 when he averages 17. Eight steals and 16 total turnovers forced by Wisconsin were also main parts of Ohio State’s scoring dysfunction, and the credit must go to the intense defense that coach Greg Gard continues to deploy.
On the other hand, free throw shooting struggles continue to persist. While Hepburn did convert three of his four game-sealing free throws, 59% as a team still does not cut it. Many of these misses came in the later minutes of the second half, mostly in the middle of the seven-minute scoring drought. Had those chances from Wahl and Carter Gilmore fallen, the Ohio State comeback would likely have never come to fruition.
Coach Gard recognizes the unnecessary difficulties his team puts on themselves when they struggle to close out games.
“We’re ranked number one in the country. They have a new poll — teams that make it way harder on themselves,” he joked in the post-game interview, per Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Unanimous. [My players] have all my votes.”
Rebounding was undoubtedly ugly, as it has been for most of the season. Ohio State outrebounded Wisconsin 45-26, including 12 offensive. While the Badgers may not be the biggest team in the Big Ten, allowing 12 offensive rebounds almost always results in a loss. Had it not been for the first half scoring performance, the Badgers very well could have been looking at another loss on Thursday thanks to their struggle with rebounding on both ends of the floor.
Wisconsin next takes action on Feb. 5 at 5:30 p.m. as they host Northwestern in a rematch from just over a week ago. The Badgers will look to continue their late season momentum against the Wildcats at the Kohl Center. The game can be found live on the Big Ten Network and the Badger Sports Network.