Momentum has been elusive for the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team during the Big Ten Conference season.
For the Badgers, it has been one step forward and two steps back since the calendar turned to January. Every time they won a game and gave their followers hope that they had turned a corner and might string together a few victories, the Badgers turned right around and lost their next game.
When they beat Indiana upon the resumption of Big Ten play in early January, they lost at Rutgers, a team that is still below them in the standings, in their next game. When they blitzed Illinois at home two weeks later, they went to Iowa, another team that is still below them in the standings, and lost by 18. And when they won at Illinois two weeks ago, they spotted Michigan a big lead at home and couldn't get back into the game against one of the conference's NCAA-bound teams.
The Badgers got everyone's hopes up again Thursday when they knocked off sixth-ranked Purdue at home. Surely, such a solid victory would be the springboard for a typical late-season surge by UW, right?
Well, yes. So far, anyway.
No, the Badgers didn't come out and play a perfect game against a struggling Minnesota team Monday night at the Kohl Center. But for the second straight game, they made the plays they needed to make at the end and emerged with a 73-63 overtime victory over the Gophers, their third victory in four games.
It didn't look good for the Badgers when they faced a seven-point deficit late in the game against still another team that is below them in the standings, but they used stifling defense to get the game into overtime and executed extremely well on offense in the extra session to win going away.
More than momentum, though, UW's second consecutive victory showed how much confidence they've gained, especially since the victory over Purdue.
"I think they're becoming more consistent," UW coach Greg Gard said. "That's the word you've heard me use before. Typically, when you have less experience there's going to be ups and downs and you're going to have a learning process that these guys have to go through. It's not always fun to go through that process and that experience, but it's good for us. We're obviously a better team that we were a month ago, two months ago. EVen with the injuries, I think we 're starting to learn roles and understand how important consistency is on both ends of the floor."
Consistency didn't come easily against the Gophers, who scored on drive after drive into the lane for the first 30-plus minutes and aggressively double-teamed center Ethan Happ to the point where he took only one shot in the first half.
The quick, all-over-the-floor double-teams on Happ basically put the game in the hands of UW's supporting cast, which has been hot and cold all season. UW made Minnesota pay for it in the first half, going 7-for-14 from 3-point range. In the second half, however, the Badgers went cold. They were 3-for-13 from 3-point range, a big reason Minnesota was able to grab a 58-51 lead with 5 minutes, 51 seconds to play.
But at that point the Badgers, led by Happ's outstanding effort controlling the paint, started playing defense the way they did against Purdue, holding Minnesota to only one point the rest of the way. The Badgers started executing better on offense as well, finally getting Happ free inside on occasion. They executed flawlessly in overtime, when guard Brevin Pritzl sank two 3s and Happ had two layups, one on an assist from guard Brad Davison, one on an assist from Pritzl.
"I thought in overtime our defense sparked our offense," Gard said. "I think they felt, 'We can handle them defensively, let's go score now.' ... They did a really good job, maybe the best we've executed down the stretch in awhile, maybe this year. I'll have to look through the possessions of what we did in that last 4 minutes and then overtime to be able to get good looks."
For one thing, they looked to Happ to break down the defense off the dribble since their guards were struggling to do that against Minnesota's quickness. Mostly, though, they played with a confidence that wasn't always apparent earlier in the season.
"They've been in enough of these situations now," Gard said. "We've had so many late-game tied-with-2-minutes-to-go, tied-with-a-minute-to-go (situations) that they understand the importance of, 'Hey, if we get some stops, that's only three possessions.' ... I just thought defensively we were a little better there in the last 6 or 7 minutes. Obviously, we had to be in order to get back to tie it."
Indeed, UW's confidence stems from getting back to playing the kind of the defense it is known for. The Badgers aren't airtight on defense yet, but they're getting better. That is both keeping them in games and giving them a chance to win them at the end.
"It was the same thing as Purdue," Happ said. "We didn't play defense the way we wanted to for 40 minutes this game, but we know when we turn on our defense that's what we can hang our hat on."
UW's offense has been fickle and likely will remain so. But their defense has given them momentum and confidence.