PHILADELPHIA — Ethan Happ stood outside the visiting locker room at the Liacouras Center on Wednesday night and took his share of the blame for the latest heartbreaking defeat for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
The junior center scored a team-high 23 points in the Badgers’ 59-55 loss to Temple, at times carrying the team on his back in the second half.
But when UW needed baskets down the stretch, its star came up empty on three consecutive possessions.
“I make some plays down the stretch, we come away with a win,” Happ said. “Being around for two years of playing, I’ve got to be the guy that comes up with the big play on offense and we’ve got to play team defense on the other end. But that didn’t happen tonight.”
The loss dropped the Badgers to 4-6. Five of those defeats have been winnable games in which UW failed to close out games.
Even during the first leg of this road trip to Pennsylvania, a 64-63 victory at Penn State on Monday, the Badgers had to hold on for dear life despite leading by 14 points with under 5 minutes to play.
“As I told the team, it seems like a mile,” UW coach Greg Gard said, “(but) it’s probably only an inch away.”
Junior guard Shizz Alston Jr. finished with 22 points to lead Temple (5-2). He scored the final four points of the game, all on free throws, to help the Owls win their home opener.
Senior forward Obi Enechionyia added 11 points for the Owls, but it was his defense on Happ that contributed heavily to a UW scoring drought late in the game.
UW went the final 3 minutes, 35 seconds without scoring after a putback by redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford gave the Badgers a three-point lead.
Happ, who was 11 of 16 from the field at one point, didn’t score over the final 5:51 after Temple coach Fran Dunphy made the decision to go small and put the 6-foot-8 Enechionyia on UW’s only consistent offensive threat.
On three consecutive possessions, Happ had the ball in the paint with a chance to score. The first two times, his shot was blocked by Enechionyia; on the final play in that sequence, Enechionyia held his ground and forced Happ to miss a contested shot.
“I just did what I could to stay straight up and contest every shot to the best of my ability,” Enechionyia said.
Happ felt he was fouled by Enechionyia on at least two of those shots, but the veteran crew of Pat Adams, Ted Valentine and Rick Crawford didn’t see it that way.
“I believe there was contact on my shooting arm that I was shooting with, which usually comes down to a foul,” Happ said. “But I guess they were letting them play on that end.”
Added Gard: “For as physical as it was, we only shot six free throws. I’ll have to look at the tape and see what we weren’t doing on our end. We had opportunities inside to finish. I thought we got the ball where we needed to get it to for the most part.”
Alston made two free throws with 1:09 remaining to give Temple a 57-55 lead, but he airballed a 3-pointer on the next possession to give UW one more shot at taking the lead.
Freshman wing Kobe King had a good look at the top of the key after coming off a screen, but his 3-pointer went off the rim and Temple grabbed the rebound.
The Badgers had no choice but to foul Alston, who made two free throws with 4.6 seconds to seal the win. By going 6 of 6 from the line – his teammates were a combined 2 of 9 – Alston set a Temple record with his 52nd consecutive made free throw, a streak that dates to last season’s opener.
Veteran guards making plays down the stretch against the Badgers has been a common theme. Meanwhile, UW’s youth in the backcourt has been evident, particularly in late-game situations.
“I don’t know if it’s immaturity or lack of experience,” UW sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice said, “but we just can’t seem to close games the way we want to in the last (few) minutes of each game.”