On the last day of regular season conference play, Wisconsin (17-13, 9-11 Big Ten) traveled to Minnesota (8-21, 2-17) for the second Border Battle of the season.
The Badgers, whose March Madness tournament hopes hang in the balance with many bubble teams, picked up the crucial win and regular season sweep over the Golden Gophers with a tight 71-67 win.
Steven Crowl and Tyler Wahl each poured in 21 points and seven rebounds, while Chucky Hepburn stepped up late to hit a 3-point dagger on his way to 12 second-half points.
Off the tip, the Badgers came out firing. Connor Essegian drilled a 3-pointer and Crowl scored a layup to give Wisconsin a quick lead, but Minnesota worked to match the Badgers’ early scoring.
Crowl continued his early dominance of the paint with another hook shot inside, and Wahl followed up with two strong post scores — an area of the floor where he’s struggled to score since returning from his ankle injury in mid-January.
While the big guys got going early, Hepburn struggled on the defensive side of the ball. He picked up his second foul less than five minutes into the game and headed to the bench, forcing Greg Gard to rotate the likes of Isaac Lindsey and Kamari McGee into the game early.
As Wisconsin fell into their typical mid-half drought, Minnesota scored on back-to-back possessions to tie the game at 18. The Badgers endured a 1-14 shooting run — including a 3-pointer off the top of the backboard — that allowed Minnesota to grab the lead.
The Golden Gophers grabbed three offensive rebounds in the first half that helped them score in the midst of Wisconsin’s drought, highlighting Wisconsin’s season-long struggles with defensive rebounding.
Max Klesmit broke the almost six minute scoring drought with an open 3-pointer, before Crowl’s continued paint scoring helped the Badgers retake the lead with four minutes to play. However, Minnesota continued to drive the ball inside on their way to 20 first half points in the paint alone.
Despite a layup from Essegian, the Golden Gophers retook a four point lead in the closing minute of the half. The Badgers missed yet again on their last possession of the half, and Minnesota took advantage with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to take a 36-29 lead into halftime.
Hepburn checked back into the game at the start of the second half and made an immediate impact with a drive and score. Wahl followed up with a coast-to-coast finish that earned him three points courtesy of a trip to the free throw line.
A refreshed Hepburn continued to work hard in the opening minutes, as he swiped the ball from the Gophers and slammed it home to top off a 7-1 opening run. However, Minnesota picked up where they left in the first half with strong inside scoring to extend their lead back to five.
Crowl also picked up where he left off in the first half with two more scores inside — a tip-in and a spin move — and Wahl did the same with a crafty step-through finish. The Gophers dropped in two mid-range shots, but Wahl answered with a strong finish in the paint to keep the Badgers within four, 50-46.
The Golden Gophers began to heat up from beyond the arc as they drilled a 3-pointer to extend their lead to seven. Wahl responded with yet another fancy-footwork score inside, and the Badgers forced a stop on the next possession, resulting in a nifty layup from Hepburn on offense.
Hepburn continued to make a strong second-half impact as he zipped a pass inside to a cutting Crowl, who finished the play and hit his and-1 free throw to tie the game at 53. However, Carter Gilmore — an essential interior defender for the Badgers — picked up his fourth foul on the other end and headed to the bench with nine minutes still to play.
Crowl worked his way inside for his 20th point of the game and drilled another and-1 free throw to give Wisconsin their first lead in the second half. A cutting Essegian finished off another dime pass from Hepburn, and Essegian drilled two free throws to give Wisconsin a 62-59 lead with four minutes remaining.
Wisconsin turned up their defensive intensity in the closing minutes of the game, but a late turnover allowed Minnesota to tie the game at 62 on an and-1 play. For unknown reasons, the Badgers suddenly abandoned the post and instead missed a 3-pointer — their first attempt of the second half, with less than two minutes to play.
Turnovers from both teams in the closing minutes of the second half saw Wisconsin take a late three point lead thanks to a clutch step-back 3-pointer from Hepburn. A series of foul calls on both ends of the floor resulted in free throws that sealed the Badger win, 71-67.
Who needs 3-pointers anyways?
Minnesota natives Crowl and Wahl put on a masterclass in the paint. The Gophers had no answer for the big men as their combined 42 points all came from the paint or free throws. While Minnesota found their way to the hoop and scored on the drive, the consistent offensive barrage for Wisconsin was crucial.
In all, the Badgers only attempted three 3-pointers, one of which being Hepburn’s game-sealing shot with less than a minute left in the game. This was quite the switch-up in offensive strategy — usually the Badgers shoot 23.7% from 3-point land, good for fourth in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin will take the floor in Chicago on the opening night of the Big Ten Tournament as a 12 seed. Tip-off against 13-seeded Ohio State is set for 5:30 p.m. on March 8, and Wisconsin will be looking for a convincing win to boost them into a March Madness tournament spot.