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MADISON - Remember the old adage: offense scores points but defense wins championships? Consider that phrase tailor made for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
After an impressive shooting performance at Purdue Thursday, the Badgers reverted back to their old offensive woes Sunday, but kept clicking defensively to shutdown Nebraska’s offense in a 50-45 victory.
The victory gets Wisconsin (14-5, 3-3 Big Ten) back to .500 in the conference and erases some of the sting of the three-game losing streak that hung over its heads for two agonizing weeks.
“We found a way to win, which is important in the Big Ten,” said senior Jordan Taylor, who led the team with 19 points (11 coming on free throws) but didn’t have an assist or a turnover. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint and we’re happy to have the win.”
The Badgers shot only 31.3 percent (including only six made buckets in the second half for a season-low 21.4 field goal percentage), but limited Nebraska (9-8, 1-5) to just 35.2 percent shooting, outrebounded the Huskers 42-28 (including 17-9 on the offensive glass) and went 18 of 24 from the free throw compared to the 2-2 performance from the visitors.
“You’re not going to win on the road very many games with the discrepancy of 22 free throws,” said Nebraska coach Doc Sadler. “We’ve got to do much better than that … Obviously they are just an unbelievable defense team to not foul. We’ve just got to be tougher with the ball.”
Tough could be the best word to describe what transpired late, as hustle play after hustle play seemed to find its way into the hands of Wisconsin. Trailing by as many as 11 in the second half, Nebraska, which lost to UW by 24 in the conference opener Dec.27, pulled within 47-45 with 17.5 seconds left.
Taylor was fouled with 17 seconds left and made the first free throw. He missed the second, but Mike Bruesewitz tipped the ball out and Taylor retrieved it by ripping it out of the arms of guard Dylan Talley.
Taylor was fouled again and made both free throws to close the scoring, as Wisconsin – which made its final eight free throws Thursday to ice its win over Purdue – went 6-for-7 from the free throw line in the final 80 seconds.
The Badgers also converted their 17 offensive rebounds into 17 second chance points and improved their nation’s best scoring defense to 48.5 points per game.
“When you are in a tight game like that, a couple of possessions, all those (hustle plays) matter, and we got our fair share of them,” said UW coach Bo Ryan, as the Badgers season-low 15 field goals were the fewest in a win since making 17 in a victory over Northwestern in 2008. “A matter of fact, we got pretty much all of them.
“To get this kind of a good thing for us, as far as the left-hand side, playing the way we did on the offensive end. This is a pretty good statement for our players.”
It also helped having a guy like sophomore Josh Gasser in the mix, as he was one of the few bright spots in a gritty first half by scoring eight of his 12 points. The guard completed a trifecta when he stole the ball from Tony McCray, went the length of the floor for the layup and made the free throw after McCray tried to foul him.
Gasser also chased down Bo Spencer (team-high 13 points) from behind and poked out the ball after a long rebound caught UW sleeping to prevent an easy lay-in, helping UW start the second half by limiting Nebraska scoreless on six straight possessions.
“To save two points there really … everyone can do that so it’s good to see,” said junior Jared Berggren, who finished with nine points, a career-high 13 rebounds and six offensive rebounds. “We need to get more plays like that out of everyone. Sometimes that could be the difference in games.”
It needed to be, because the crowd – or lack thereof – certainly didn’t provide enough energy. Although the announced attendance was 17,173, empty seats plastered the arena, the lower level of the student section was 50 percent empty and the concourse was filled with onlookers staring at an even uglier Giants-Packers game on television.
Wisconsin shot 45 percent in the first, but made only one field during a 9:04 stretch, and committed 11 turnovers, two shy of its season high for an entire game. Still, the Badgers led 24-21 because Nebraska wasn’t much better shooting the ball after missing a number of point-blank layups to shoot 38.5 percent (10-for-26).
“I think coach said we had four straight possessions with (a) turnover, which is pretty uncharacteristic and it showed by our offensive production,” said Gasser. “Missing four opportunities to get a shot up is not what you are looking for. I think we got better though in the second half. We only had one turnover. That definitely contributed to the outcome.”
When a girls’ gymnastics team making up the halftime entertainment drew the loudest applause of the first half, you know it was a challenging opener for those that picked the Badgers over the Packers and saw both teams open the game shooting 9 of 27.
In the end though, Wisconsin did just enough right to make people forget about the problems a couple hours to the north.
“Numbers really don’t mean anything,” said Taylor. “The only thing that matters is what side of the win column you are in. If you are on the left side the majority of the time or all the time, we’ll take that.”