For about 30 minutes Monday night, Nebraska couldn’t stop Ethan Happ no matter who it had guarding the junior center for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
The Cornhuskers found a solution in time to spark a surge that helped them erase a double-digit deficit and leave the Kohl Center with a 74-63 victory over Happ and the Badgers.
Junior guard James Palmer Jr. finished with a game-high 28 points for Nebraska, which outscored UW 30-8 over the final 9 minutes, 46 seconds of the game.
What made the Cornhuskers’ biggest comeback of the year even more impressive was that it came at the end of a brutal stretch on their schedule. For the second time in just over a week, Nebraska (17-8, 8-4 Big Ten) was playing its second game in a span of three days.
“Those last 10 minutes,” Cornhuskers coach Tim Miles said, “when you’re playing four games in eight days, three on the road, that’s pretty good fight out of your team to see them come out of here with a W.”
On the flip side, it was just as demoralizing of a loss for the Badgers (10-13, 3-7), who have now dropped six of their last seven games. The previous five losses during that stretch came on the road and UW was confident it could turn things around at home.
For 30 minutes, the Badgers did. But they collapsed down the stretch after building an 11-point lead.
Happ finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and six assists for UW, but his last field goal came with 14:19 remaining and he struggled when the Badgers needed him the most.
Some of the issue for Happ, who played 38 minutes, might have been fatigue.
Another factor was Nebraska’s switch to a 1-3-1 zone that came after, in Miles’ words, Happ “brutalized” whomever Nebraska put on him in man-to-man situations. The fouls piled up on his big men, so Miles went to the zone in order to slow down Happ.
“We got some looks at the rim, myself especially,” Happ said, “and that’s just where I have to come up with those plays and make the basket.”
Happ finished 8 of 19 from both the field and the free throw line. UW was 16 of 31 as a team from the stripe.
After building a 55-44 lead on a baseline drive and dunk by junior forward Khalil Iverson (13 points) with exactly 10 minutes remaining, the Badgers’ offense stalled.
UW scored eight points over its final 20 possessions of the game, going 2 of 13 from the field and 4 of 10 from the line with five turnovers during that ugly stretch.
“You can’t let Ethan get his and you can’t let them get 3s. It’s got to be one or the other,” Miles said. “So then I thought when we went zone, now (those) doubles come from different spots. I thought that was better and it was harder for (Happ) to get free, maybe it would frustrate him a little bit more, too.”
Nebraska often extended its zone past the midcourt line and threw in some traps to get the Badgers even more flustered.
UW coach Greg Gard thought his team was too tentative against the trap. Some of that can be explained by the fact the Badgers lack a true point guard and have freshman Brad Davison playing that role with sophomore D’Mitrik Trice sidelined by a foot injury.
“I thought we took our time at times, even bringing it across halfcourt, instead of aggressively attacking it and playing more aggressively,” Gard said. “I understand what was probably going through Brad’s mind that he didn’t want to turn it over and wanted to make good decisions. But still in those situations, we’ve got to be aggressive to put us in position and then you make the decisions from there.
“And then you’ve got to convert. We had shots, we had some free throws.”
On the other end of the court, the Badgers were letting Nebraska convert way too easily.
Palmer, who did most of his damage at the rim after UW couldn’t stop his dribble penetration, scored 12 points during a 20-3 run that decided the game. He gave Nebraska the lead for good, 60-58 with 4:32 left, when he drove past UW senior forward Aaron Moesch and finished over Happ.
“Defensively, I think we kind of let off the gas a little bit,” Happ said. “We played pretty well defensively for 30-ish minutes. We’ve just got to execute all 40.”
Isaac Copeland (17 points) made two free throws and Palmer added two more with 1:55 to complete the run.
UW was within 64-59 and had a chance to make it a one-possession game with about a minute remaining, but Iverson missed from point-blank range. That was the Badgers’ last gasp.
“If we put a complete game together, we’re walking out of here in a lot different mood,” Moesch said. “It’s not about 30 minutes and 10 minutes, it’s about 40 minutes.”