College basketball inside
Iowa State, Villanova cruise to tournament titles; Wisconsin routs Northwestern in Big Ten semis.
Wisconsin senior forward Nigel Hayes restored order in a 76-48 decimation of Northwestern in the Big Ten semifinals Saturday at Verizon Center, but not without a little luck.
Hayes couldn’t help but grin after his first three-point attempt of the second half clanked off the rim before falling through the net. It was exactly the kind of bounce that eluded his team during a late-season stretch of five losses in six games.
“I’ll always take that. That’s probably a product of us doing things the right way, listening to the coaches, playing together as a team, having fun,” said Hayes, who finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds to help the Badgers advance to Sunday’s championship game against Michigan, which beat Minnesota, 84-77, in the other semifinal. “When we’re playing on both ends of the court, playing together and having fun, we can be pretty good.”
The Badgers (25-8) certainly were Saturday, which Hayes chalked up to the “basketball gods” blessing a refocused and relaxed group.
“They can punish you when you’re not doing well,” Hayes said afterward when speaking about his team’s struggles through February and into early March, which began with humbling loss to Northwestern (2311) at home on Feb. 12. That win was considered a crucial checkpoint on the Wildcats’ path to their first NCAA tournament appearance, which is expected to become a reality when the field is announced Sunday.
But the notion that Northwestern — making its first appearance in the Big Ten semifinals — could somehow upstage the Badgers again? That was quickly squashed Saturday as Wisconsin thoroughly atoned for that previous loss with impressive play on both the interior and perimeter.
Sophomore center Ethan Happ bruised his way to 16 points and eight rebounds — the Badgers held a 37-27 advantage on the boards — and seniors Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown each hit two three-pointers apiece on an afternoon in which Wisconsin hit 12 of 29 from deep. That followed a 10-for-22 three-point shooting performance in Friday night’s 70-60 win over Indiana in the quarterfinals.
“I don’t know if we needed it, but it’s definitely nice to have a couple of games where you can come together and have fun playing,” Koenig said of his team, which shot 47.4 percent from the field Saturday.
Wisconsin devoted itself to the defensive end, holding Northwestern to a season-low point total on a paltry 34.8 percent shooting. The Wildcats had just one assist in the first 31 minutes and finished with just five against 12 turnovers.
“We never lost faith in what we were doing . . . . There weren’t any radical changes, anything outside the box,” Wisconsin Coach Greg Gard said of his team’s late-season slump, which included a 64-58 loss to Michigan on Feb. 16. “It was just, ‘Let’s get back to doing what we do really well. Let’s try to improve upon it.’ That was specifically on the defensive end.”
And then there was Hayes, who badly missed his first two jumpers before finding a rhythm. Hayes has not been the obvious star he was expected to be when he was named the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year back in October — he was named third-team all-conference earlier this week — but he again proved to be part of the backbone of a team that returned nearly everyone from last season’s Sweet 16 run.
With Happ anchoring the interior and both Showalter and Koenig running the backcourt, Hayes picked his spots accordingly. Perhaps one of his best offensive plays of the night came when he posted up and flipped a pass from the high post to Happ on the block. Happ finished the layup and completed the threepoint play after being fouled to push the lead to 15 with just over two minutes remaining in the first half.
Northwestern would never get closer. By that point, Hayes looked his teammates in the eyes and told them they had done the big things to get a large lead. Now they needed to do the little things to extend it. The result was the most lopsided win for the program in Big Ten tournament history, and a seventh appearance in the title game. Against the blistering hot Wolverines on Sunday, Hayes and his teammates will have yet another chance to prove that they’re back in form.
“It’s huge for us, definitely,” Hayes said, “to see what we can do, what we’re capable of when we’re playing well.”