LINCOLN, Neb. — Greg Gard finally reached his breaking point Tuesday night, picking up his first career technical foul in his 78th game as coach of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
His outburst was a reaction to what he felt was a missed call, but his frustration level had been building for quite some time at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
With the officiating crew, and with his team’s inability to score.
After the Badgers dropped a 63-59 decision to Nebraska — UW’s sixth loss in seven games away from home this season — Gard was calm while repeating what’s become a familiar refrain this season.
UW’s offensive options are so few beyond junior center Ethan Happ and freshman Brad Davison that its margin for error in every other area is razor thin.
“We almost have to pitch a perfect game at times, at least for longer stretches of a game, on the defensive end,” Gard said, “because we have to continue to manufacture ways to score.”
Happ finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds and four steals to lead the Badgers (9-9, 2-3 Big Ten). Davison added 15 points, while sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl had 10.
UW averaged only 0.89 points per possession against the Cornhuskers, who are hardly a defensive juggernaut. Nebraska entered the game ranked No. 73 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.
The Badgers struggled at times to finish around the rim, especially through contact. They had plenty of good looks from 3-point range but finished just 5 of 19, missing nine in a row at one point.
“On the road, especially in the Big Ten, every game is huge,” Davison said. “When you’re not shooting the ball, it just magnifies all the little things that we need to do better.”
Little things like making free throws. UW finished 4 of 10 from the line, with Happ missing five of his six attempts.
Happ is now 18 of 43 (41.9 percent) over his last nine games after going 27 of 43 (62.8 percent) in the first nine games of the season.
“Seeing the ball go in helps,” Happ said. “There was a couple there, where it hit the back of the rim, bounced up, just barely missed. Things like that, that’s tough when you don’t get those ones and then you’re kind of second-guessing yourself on the next one. I’ve just got to stay confident with them.”
The Cornhuskers (12-6, 3-2) didn’t shoot well, either — they went 2 of 14 from 3-point range — but the biggest difference was their ability to get to the line and, for the most part, capitalize at that spot.
Nebraska finished 21 of 28 at the stripe, with James Palmer Jr. making eight of his nine attempts. Palmer, a transfer from Miami (Fla.), finished with a team-high 18 points.
“He adds a different dimension, a wing that can attack that you have to go play on the perimeter,” Gard said. “He’s a handful when he comes downhill.”
UW was whistled for four fouls in the opening 2 minutes, 59 seconds of the second half and Nebraska spent the final 14:29 of the game in the bonus.
What put Gard over the edge was the fact no whistle was blown when Davison drove hard to the rim with 7:22 left. Gard was whistled for a technical, and freshman guard Thomas Allen made both free throws to give Nebraska a 50-40 lead.
“I thought Brad got fouled,” Gard said. “That was my response. … I thought there were some things that were let go at times, but I’ll watch the film and see.”
Gard’s outburst seemed to light a spark under his team, and Happ scored all of UW’s points during a 7-1 run that cut Nebraska’s lead to 51-47 with 4:47 left.
Happ missed two free throws with 1:20 left, but he scored the next trip down to cut the Badgers’ deficit to 56-51 with 54.8 seconds remaining.
But Glynn Watson Jr. made two free throws to restore Nebraska’s five-point lead. Pritzl and Davison made things interesting by making 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions in the final 6.6 seconds to make it a three-point game, but Evan Taylor’s free throw with 0.9 seconds left sealed the win for Nebraska.
UW wanted to slow down the tempo — a “grinder” as Gard called it.
“We did that,” Gard said, “but we have to be able to put the ball in the basket and score more consistently.”