INDIANAPOLIS — By the time the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team got around to landing a good punch Saturday afternoon, it already had been on the receiving end of so many jabs, uppercuts and body blows that the No. 12 Badgers barely knew what hit them.
UW put up a good fight the rest of the way, but that was of little consolation after its Big Ten Conference tournament title hopes ended with an 83-75 semifinal loss to No. 22 Michigan State at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Senior forward Adreian Payne scored 18 points to lead six players in double figures, and the third-seeded Spartans (25-8) never trailed en route to booking a date with Michigan (25-7), the No. 1 seed, in today’s final.
Junior center Frank Kaminsky scored a game-high 28 points to lead the second-seeded Badgers (26-7), whose Big Ten title drought reached six years in large part because they didn’t match Michigan State’s intensity in the first half.
“In a game like this, and in this type of environment, when you get to this point of the season, you can’t play 20 minutes, you have to play 40,” UW associate head coach Greg Gard said. “Otherwise, the next time it happens we’ll put away the uniforms for good.”
This was a matchup of two teams who were disappointed that they fell short of winning the Big Ten regular-season title and looking for redemption in postseason play.
One thing was very evident in the first half: Not only were the Spartans the more talented team, they also appeared to be the one with the greater sense of urgency.
Michigan State, finally at full strength after dealing with a rash of injuries to key players throughout the season, played what coach Tom Izzo said was “some of our best basketball of the year in that first five minutes” of the game. The Spartans jumped out to a 7-0 lead and used a 16-1 run later in the first half to build a 21-point cushion – UW’s largest deficit of the season.
“One of the things we wanted to concentrate on was jumping out on them early,” Spartans junior guard Travis Trice said. “I think it kind of stunned them, too, because I don’t really think they expected us to come out like that. When we did, we were rolling.”
The Badgers, meanwhile, were reeling.
“When you get hit in the mouth that quick, you kind of step back and say, ‘Hey, what happened?’ You’re kind of in shock a little bit,” UW sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. “But hats off to them for coming out strong and aggressive and shame on us for not.”
By the time the Badgers sought refuge in their locker room at halftime, they faced a 43-26 deficit after allowing Michigan State to shoot 65.4 percent and average an eye-opening 1.54 points per possession.
The Spartans had 20 points in the paint and 10 fast-break points by halftime. They were, without a doubt, the more physical and faster team.
“They just had a sense of aggression about them and we were kind of taking it,” Dekker said. “We were kind of being a little softer than usual. … They made more strong, tough plays, and that’s why they won.”
The Badgers picked themselves off the mat in time to prevent a total blowout, chipping away at Michigan State’s lead by shooting 60 percent after halftime.
But UW still struggled to get stops when it needed them the most. After the Badgers pulled to within 10 points on two separate occasions, Spartans senior Keith Appling answered with jumpers. When Dekker hit a 3-pointer to cut UW’s deficit to 66-58 with 7 minutes, 43 seconds left, Payne posted up Kaminsky and hit a short jumper to restore the Spartans’ double-digit cushion.
The most frustrating ending to a defensive possession for UW came after it had pulled to within 70-63 on a three-point play by junior guard Josh Gasser with 5:58 remaining. The Badgers played solid defense for 34 seconds and just had to hang on for one more after knocking the ball out of bounds. But Denzel Valentine lobbed an inbounds pass to junior forward Branden Dawson, who finished for two of his 14 points as the shot-clock buzzer sounded.
“It’s disappointing,” Kaminsky said. “We said before the season that we wanted a Big Ten championship, and we failed on that one. I feel like with the people we had in this locker room that we had enough to do it, but if we would have played like we did in the second half the whole game, I believe that it would have been a different outcome.”
What bothered Gard the most was that the Badgers didn’t come out fighting. UW learned a valuable lesson in defeat, though it’s a real head-scratcher why such a message was even required this late in the season.
“If you’re going to go down, you want to go down swinging for 40 minutes,” Gard said. “I don’t know if today’s a microcosm of how kind of we’ve been through the season. We’ve been really good at times and then we’ve been (where) you shake your head and scratch your head (and say), ‘Why are we playing like that?’
“We were very aggressive and we were very good (in the quarterfinal victory over Minnesota). So three out of four halves of being very good and you get sent home at this time of year. You’ve got to be good four out of four in order to advance.”