PHILADELPHIA — Khalil Iverson’s teammates on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team were concerned.
The junior forward didn’t play well in back-to-back losses and was down in the dumps after spending the majority of those games watching from the bench.
Rock bottom came Saturday, when Iverson was benched at halftime and played only four minutes in the second half of an 83-58 loss to Ohio State at the Kohl Center. What followed over the next 48 hours was an extended pep talk, with Iverson receiving constant reminders about his value to the team.
“A couple guys said something to me,” Iverson said. “I took that and ran with it.”
Did he ever. Iverson played a huge role in UW’s 64-63 victory at Penn State on Monday night, finishing with 16 points, five rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 31 minutes.
“He was locked in, he was engaged,” UW coach Greg Gard said after Iverson set a career high for points in a Big Ten game. “When he is, he’s very effective.”
It’s clear Gard didn’t think Iverson was locked in and engaged in losses to Virginia and Ohio State last week. Iverson didn’t score in either game and was sluggish on defense against both the Cavaliers and the Buckeyes.
As young as UW is — four of the eight players who saw action against Penn State are freshmen and two others are sophomores — it needs its upperclassmen to set the tone. That didn’t happen against Virginia and Ohio State, with Iverson and junior center Ethan Happ playing poorly in each game.
Happ, as it turns out, is Iverson’s roommate on the road. The former encouraged the latter to keep his head up, but Happ wasn’t the only one who was in Iverson’s ear.
“He was really, really upset after the last game and coach kind of got onto him and some of the players got onto him,” sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “I think that his head was down, but I think he came in with the right attitude” against Penn State.
According to Iverson, the refrain he heard from teammates and coaches was simple:
“They just told me stay focused, (that) I’m kind of the X-factor on the team and those energy plays that I bring get us going,” Iverson said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
Iverson had 14 points by halftime against Penn State. He’s had trouble finishing around the rim at times throughout his career, but he showed patience and poise against the Nittany Lions, using pump fakes to get defenders up in the air so he had time and space to finish. His only miss in eight attempts from the field was the result of a blocked shot.
“I think I just came out from the start being aggressive,” Iverson said. “I think it definitely gave us some energy, so I tried to continue to do it for the whole game.”
Iverson’s scoring helped make up for another slow offensive night for Happ, who went 3 of 12 from the field while finishing with nine points and 10 rebounds.
To UW’s credit, others picked up the slack.
Freshman forward Nate Reuvers (11 points) joined Iverson in double figures and helped UW finish with a 25-1 cushion in bench points.
Two other reserves had solid all-around games. Sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl finished with six points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal in 21 minutes. Freshman wing Kobe King had eight points, three rebounds, an assist and a block in 24 minutes and hit a big 3-pointer late in the game when UW was in the process of losing a big lead.
“That’s the nice thing about a team,” Gard said. “Hopefully, we don’t always have to be dependent on (Happ) to carry us.”
The Badgers (4-5) will need all hands on deck Wednesday night when they take on Temple (4-2) at the Liacouras Center.
The Owls, like UW, are a tough team to figure out. Temple has four wins this season against teams ranked in the top 100 of the Ken Pomeroy ratings (Old Dominion, Auburn, Clemson and South Carolina). But both of its losses have come to teams outside the top 100 (La Salle and George Washington).
For the Badgers, it will be their third game in five days. The first 35 minutes of Monday’s game against Penn State offered a glimpse of how good UW can be when it plays hard and smart, two areas it was lacking in during the loss to Ohio State two days earlier.
“I’m proud of our guys of how they bounced back and persevered and didn’t hang their heads and knew we had to get better and knew that wasn’t us,” Gard said. “This resembled more of what our identity can and needs to be.”