Wisconsin got its request, and it came from the unlikeliest of sources.
Everything that could go wrong was going wrong for No.18 Wisconsin but sophomore Rob Wilson scored 11 of his career-high 13 points in the second half to turn the tide, helping the Badgers register a furious comeback to overcome Michigan, 54-48.
“We see glimpses of that in practice, and we know (Wilson is) a great player,” said senior Trevon Hughes, who led the Badgers (15-4, 5-2 Big Ten) with 20 points. “It took him all season for him to come out and play with us, and we needed it. He brought it out.”
Wilson had been quiet for the majority of the season for Wisconsin, averaging only 9.6 minutes and 2.4 points in a reserve role. He had never eclipsed double digits in scoring (previous career-high of nine), but had chipped in with rebounding, defense and assists during his marginal time on the court.
“I just haven’t been bringing it like I know I should have,” Wilson said. “Today’s the day I broke out of the shell, I guess.”
It was a good thing, too, or the Badgers would have given the Wolverines(10-8, 3-3) their first win in Madison in over a decade. Starting the game missing 12 of its first 13 shots, including the opening eight, Wisconsin trailed by as many as 11, the biggest deficit the Badgers had faced at home all season.
The Badgers closed the first half on an 8-0 run, including a running back shot by Hughes at the buzzer to close the deficit to 21-18, a season low for the opening half and the first time UW had trailed at home at intermission all season long. It became more agonizing that after UW cut the lead to four points or less seven different times, Michigan would respond with a bucket or a run that would leave the Badgers back where they started.
“We started the game off flat,” Hughes said. “Actually, we were getting open looks, we just weren’t knocking them down … At halftime, Coach got into us and told us to stay alert out there and the open shots will be there.”
The open shots started coming for Wilson after UW coach Bo Ryan called a timeout at that nine-minute mark in the second half to settle the troops. The sophomore promptly hit a three-pointer, a bucket that started a string of seven consecutive points from Wilson that cut the Michigan lead to 39-37.
“Whatever he can give us, it’s great to have,” Ryan said. “The teammates are always appreciative of everybody’s efforts. Rob did a great job of recognizing what it was he could do to contribute to the team … We need somebody to hit shots … (and) that (three) was really huge.”
After Wilson finally squared the contest at 43, hitting two free throws at 4:04, a quick 6-0 run made sure the Badgers wouldn’t have to deal with another deficit, thanks to the senior leadership of Hughes, who carried the team in crunch time once again. Hitting a deep jumper at 3:07 to give UW its first lead, Hughes grabbed the defensive rebound, drove to the rim and delivered a left-hand lay-in for a 47-43 lead with 2:16 left.
Next to Wilson, Hughes was the key to Wisconsin’s resurgence, scoring 16 points in the second half to spark UW.
“I have to stay aggressive and I know my teammates feed off that,” Hughes said. “I am not a vocal leader, but I show my aggression out on the court. I believe my teammates fed off that, just like Rob coming off the bench and having 13 points for us.”
Wisconsin didn’t make another field goal the rest of the game, but silenced the Wolverines by making 11-of-12 free throws in the final 4:31, including four from Wilson. The Badgers also turned the ball over only once in the second half and five for the game.
“That’s how you get it done when you are shooting a poor percentage,” Ryan said. “You need to be making free throws and not turn the ball over. That’s the only way you have a chance, and those two things happen.”
Without the services of DeShawn Sims, Michigan would have been just as putrid in the first 20 minutes. The senior forward scored 12 of the Wolverines’ 21 first-half points and finished with a game-high 23 points and 13 rebounds.
But as dominant as he was, Wisconsin’s defense on Sims made a difference in the end. Junior Tim Jarmusz (seven rebounds) was in Sims’ scoring lane down the stretch, holding Sims without a field goal the final 6:07, and junior Keaton Nankivil stood his ground, drawing a charge with 1:44 left and UW up 48-41.
It was Sims’ fourth foul and he picked up his fifth shortly after when he was fooled by a Wilson pump fake, sending him to the bench for the final 44 seconds. With Sims being held scoreless and the Badgers defense holding the junior Manny Harris – the conference’s leading scorer (19.6) – to only 11 points (4-of-14 shooting), UW closed the game on a 17-7 run.
“We played hard for so long, but we couldn’t get some shots to drop,” said Michigan head coach John Beilein, as the Wolverines were held to a season low in points. “They hit some really timely, tough shots down the stretch and got to the foul line on us. Those were the keys.”
The Badgers were thwarted in the rebound battle (34-33) by Sims presence, shot a season-low 16.7 percent (4-of-24) from three-point range and could only convert on 16 points in the paint, a sign Wisconsin is still struggling to find its offensive flow without junior Jon Leuer.
But after combining for only six points and 13 rebounds in two road games last week, Wisconsin out scored Michigan’s bench 19-1 and overcame 34-percent shooting performance by making six of its final 11 shots.
“I think this shows a lot about our team,” Nankivil said. “We have a setback with Jon, but we aren’t the kind of team that’s going to make excuses when we have people like Rob step up. Pop (Hughes) has a big game and even when we don’t shoot well, we still do a lot of stuff well to put us in position to win.”