CHICAGO – Greg Gard stood in a hallway at the United Center Saturday afternoon with a puzzled expression on his face.
It was the look a coach wears when a poor performance leads to a tough loss, yet the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach was sporting it after a win.
A lot of things didn’t make sense after the No. 19 Badgers opened the postseason with a 66-62 victory over Nebraska in a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal.
The bottom line was that UW (23-9) advanced to play top-seeded Michigan State (26-6) on Saturday. But even Gard’s players were having a difficult time processing how they were able to overcome everything that went wrong to book that date with the Spartans.
“It’s hard to explain,” sophomore guard Brad Davison said. “There were a lot of things that were very uncharacteristic of us on the offensive end.”
Start with the fact that UW’s three top scorers – Ethan Happ, D’Mitrik Trice and Davison – combined to make only six field goals in 19 attempts. Happ finished with a season-low four points and had seven of the Badgers’ 17 turnovers.
To explain how UW survived those ugly totals, Happ pointed to Nebraska’s upset win over Maryland the previous day. Just as they did with Happ, the Cornhuskers made stopping center Bruno Fernando a priority and held him to three points.
That was a blow the Terrapins couldn’t shake off, while UW managed to overcome a poor performance by its best player.
“Maryland has a good team, obviously,” Happ said, “but they just didn’t have enough guys step up like we had step up today.”
That list included Khalil Iverson and Nate Reuvers, who both finished with 14 points. Aleem Ford was on it as well after adding 11 points off the bench.
“We just had guys step up,” Iverson said. “Ethan usually scores however many he scores. We just helped him out, I guess you could say.”
While Trice and Davison struggled in different ways, both stepped up eventually as well by providing big moments when the Badgers needed them the most.
For Trice, it was scoring all eight of his points over the final 5 minutes of the game. His biggest shot was a 3-pointer in the final minute with UW clinging to a two-point lead.
For Davison, it was putting a 2-of-10 shooting day behind him and making four consecutive free throws to help seal the win after Trice’s big shot. He finished with 11 points.
“It’s never easy,” Gard said after UW’s 15th win in 21 games against Big Ten opponents this season. “We made it more difficult on ourselves at times than we needed to.”
The Badgers led by as many as 13 points in the first half and seemed to be in control against a team that was playing its third game in a span of less than 48 hours.
But Nebraska, the No. 13 seed, kept playing hard and rode the hot hand of Glynn Watson Jr. (23 points). The Cornhuskers (17-16) led for only 66 seconds in the game, but they put a scare into the Badgers in the second half before fading down the stretch.
Watson and James Palmer Jr. played all 40 minutes for the third consecutive game, and Isaiah Roby also played 40 against UW to bring his tournament total to 116 of a possible 120. Afterward, Nebraska coach Tim Miles was asked if he thought fatigue was a factor in the closing minutes for his injury-depleted team.
“Wisconsin makes it look tough anyway,” Miles said after what was possibly his last game at Nebraska. “I thought Glynn’s legs looked good, and he was the guy we were riding, had a hop in his step all night. Maybe, but our hearts are bigger than that.”
Iverson did the heavy lifting for UW in the first half, scoring 10 points to reach double figures for the sixth time in seven games. He even added a new dimension to the offense by making two jump shots from beyond 15 feet.
Ford did his part by reaching double figures for only the third time all season. He produced seven points over back-to-back possessions in the first half — a 3-pointer followed by a four-point play — and kept that momentum rolling with big plays on both ends of the court after halftime.
“That’s kind of the Aleem that we think we’re going to get every game,” Happ said.
After Ford’s step-back jumper gave UW a 57-53 lead with 3 minutes, 56 seconds remaining, Nebraska converted the Badgers’ 17th turnover of the game into an easy basket in transition.
That score held until UW came out of a timeout with under a minute left. The plan was to get the ball to Iverson on the block, but Nebraska took away that option. What the Huskers did wrong was giving Trice too much space on the right wing, and he drained a 3-pointer to give the Badgers a five-point cushion with 50.9 seconds left.
“Just let it fly,” Trice said. “I think that was the biggest thing for me is just shooting with confidence.”
After a defensive stop, Davison and Trice made six free throws over the final 39.6 seconds left to survive despite playing nearly half the game with Happ on the bench.
“It says a lot about our team, that we’re deep and we’ve got a lot of guys that can play,” Reuvers said. “When one guy’s not having a good day, other guys will step up.”