Any number of adjectives would accurately describe the way the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team performed during two key stretches Thursday night, so take your pick:
Dreadful? Horrible? Awful?
Whatever the description, it all added up to an ugly, 59-52 loss to Minnesota that left the No. 22 Badgers grouchy and frustrated.
Junior Amir Coffey scored 15 of his game-high 21 points in the first half to help the Golden Gophers (12-2, 2-1 Big Ten) end an eight-game losing streak to UW. Dupree McBrayer turned two steals into key baskets down the stretch and finished with 14 points to help Minnesota win at the Kohl Center for the first time in almost a decade.
The Badgers got 17 points from senior center Ethan Happ, but they couldn’t overcome a poor shooting performance from 3-point range and the free throw line. UW went 5 of 22 from beyond the arc and 7 of 17 from the stripe, including several deflating misses while it was trying to dig itself out of 15-point halftime hole.
“The silver lining is the defense kept us right where we needed to be and gave us a chance,” UW coach Greg Gard said, “but you’ve got to score some points.”
UW managed only 14 points in the first half after going 6 of 26 overall from the field and 2 of 14 from beyond the arc. It averaged a measly 0.45 points per possession against an opponent that is hardly a defensive juggernaut: Minnesota began the night ranked No. 62 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.
The Gophers did a good job of neutralizing Happ in the opening 20 minutes and worked hard to close out on UW’s shooters. Still, the Badgers missed plenty of open shots.
During one stretch, UW went more than 9 minutes without a point before junior guard Brevin Pritzl made a 3-pointer to end a stretch of 13 consecutive empty possessions.
“I thought we were really connected,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “I thought we did a really good job of taking (Happ) out of it, because he’s so good, and then being able to rotate to their shooters.”
Led by Happ and sophomore forward Nate Reuvers (12 points), the Badgers came to life on offense after halftime. They started the second half with a 12-2 run and hung around before making one last push.
A 9-0 run included five points from sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice, whose runner cut Minnesota’s lead to 49-47 with 2:04 left, but that stretch also included two missed free throws each by Happ and Khalil Iverson.
Those two seniors finished a combined 2 of 11 from the line. Down the stretch, Pitino employed a hack-a-Happ strategy to put UW’s best player on the line.
It worked exactly as Pitino hoped.
“He continues to work at it,” Gard said of Happ’s ongoing issues at the line. “We put him in different situations consistently in practice, and it’s one of the final hurdles (for him). As great a player as he is, it’s one of the final hurdles we have to help him get over and get through.”
The final dagger for UW was sloppy execution from its backcourt.
Coffey followed Trice’s basket with a runner to make it 51-47, and McBrayer stripped Trice and sophomore guard Brad Davison on consecutive possessions to set up easy baskets in transition. That burst gave the Gophers a 55-47 lead with 1:02 left.
“Poor decisions that need to be better,” Gard said. “When you’re in that position, you’re in a two-possession game, we were right there, you can’t have those type of decisions and empty possessions.”
A week ago, UW returned from a three-day Christmas break with a 10-2 record and a glowing profile after an impressive start to the season.
After two head-scratching defeats in a span of six days – UW dropped an 83-76 decision at Western Kentucky on Saturday – it’s fair to wonder where the Badgers will go from here.
“I was probably more concerned after Saturday than today just because defensively is where we hang our hat and we were much better tonight,” Gard said. “We’ve got to put the ball in the basket – that’s an obvious statement I’m making there.”