Late-Game Grit Has Returned To Wisconsin Basketball

Late-Game Grit Has Returned To Wisconsin Basketball

Basketball

Late-Game Grit Has Returned To Wisconsin Basketball

MADISON, Wis. – Outrebounded on both the offensive and defensive glass, outscored in the paint and second-chance points and staring up at a 12-point deficit early in the second half, the University of Wisconsin would have been headed straight for another frustrating loss during the 2017-18 season.

In case you haven’t noticed, this year is different. More to the point, this year appears to be back to good ol’ Wisconsin basketball.

Playing its fourth nonconference Power-Five opponent in seven days, No.22 Wisconsin was pressed for 40 minutes and all 94 feet of the court but grinded its way to a 79-75 victory over N.C. State Tuesday in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at the Kohl Center.

It wasn’t pretty, especially with the pressure getting the Badgers out of rhythm early, but a little toughness and grit from Wisconsin’s returning players made leading for only 3 minutes, 42 seconds hold up.

“They understand as they grew through last year what it took when you’ve had to dig a little deeper,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “They’ve embodied that. You’re going to be in situations a lot of times when things don’t go as you plan, don’t go as you want … but you have the fortitude to keep rallying is a good trait to have.”

Off to their best start since the 2014-15 season, Wisconsin (6-1) didn’t have this many wins last year until December 23rd. And now with its third victory over a Power-Five school, a mark the Badgers didn’t hit until Jan.19 last year, it’s evident how hardened this group of returning players has become from last year’s scars.

“We are a way more experienced team that we were last year,” said sophomore D’Mitrik Trice, who scored 18 points and hit a clutch pull-up jumper with 15 seconds left that was a backbreaker. “You could see just the composure on these guys. Never too high, never too low, just that even-keel mentality.”

Going 4-8 in games decided by five points or less last season, UW won its first close game of the season by not wilting when N.C. State (6-1) wouldn’t let the Badgers take the reins of the momentum in the second half.

Five times in the first 16 minutes of the second half UW cut a multiple possession lead down to three points or less, only to have N.C. State answer immediately to rebuild the lead, thanks to 3-pointers and jumpers by C.J. Bryce (18 points) and Markell Johnson (21).

Yet UW kept clawing, finally taking the lead on Ethan Happ’s layup with 2:19 remaining and refusing to go away, even after Bryce gave the Wolfpack the lead back on the next possession.

In the final 80 seconds, UW closed the game on a 7-2 run that came with going 5-for-8 at the line.

“There at the end showed what this group is made out of,” Gard said.

Having a short turnaround following three games and a long travel day, N.C. State and its quick guards was the last opponent UW probably wanted to see. With the Wolfpack playing 10 players, Wisconsin countered by going guard heavy and deep into its bench for the first time all season.

A group that provided little punch a year ago has enjoyed its own turnaround. Kobe King (30 Minutes) delivered five points and six rebounds, Aleem Ford played a season-high 21 minutes and hit four 3-pointers, Trevor Anderson had a mini 5-0 run in the second half and guards Brevin Pritzl and Tai Strickland played turnover-free during their time on the court.

Gard called it a test case to use a small lineup, which UW appeared to pass, especially with King’s getting more and more comfortable after missing 23 games last year and Ford looking stronger following his October knee surgery.

“It was a team win,” said Happ, who finished with his seventh double-double of the season (19 points, 11 rebounds). “It wasn’t relied on one or two guys. I don’t know if that’s how it would have been last year in a game like this. We are a lot more balanced this year than we were last year. I think that’s what really helped us so far this season and in this game.”

At the close of the first month of the season, Wisconsin has won a true road game, won a game in which away from home where they didn’t shoot the 3-point shot particularly well and competed favorable in games against teams with slower tempos and those who wanted to push the pace.

It’s versatility that was missing last year, adaptability that could make the Badgers dangerous as the season starts heating up with Big Ten play beginning Friday.

“We’ve been able to find different ways,” Gard said. “That’s usually the sign of a good team.”

 

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