EAST LANSING, Mich. — If there’s any good news for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team as it officially reaches the midway point of Big Ten Conference play, it’s this:
Six of the Badgers’ remaining nine games during the regular season will be at home.
Life on the road has been filled with potholes for UW this season. That was the case again Friday night at the Breslin Center, where the Badgers showed plenty of fight but still walked away with a 76-61 loss to No. 6 Michigan State.
Sophomore forward Miles Bridges scored a game-high 24 points for the Spartans (19-3, 7-2 Big Ten) and sophomore point guard Cassius Winston added 17, including three big 3-pointers in the second half that killed UW’s momentum.
Junior center Ethan Happ scored all but one of his 23 points after halftime to lead the Badgers, who fell to 1-9 away from home this season and lost for the 11th consecutive time at the Breslin Center.
Better UW teams have left here dejected during a skid that dates to 2004 and few outsiders were giving this version, a 17-point underdog, a chance against a legitimate national title contender.
Given that backdrop, this was an encouraging double-digit defeat if there is such a thing, though the Badgers certainly weren’t looking at it that way.
“If you see those guys in the locker room, they expected to come in here and win,” UW coach Greg Gard said. “In the timeouts, it was, ‘It’s our time,’ and ‘We’re right there.’ ”
Sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl, who added 13 points for the Badgers (10-12, 3-6), was even more blunt.
“We,” Pritzl said, “can beat this team.”
In the end, UW couldn’t dig itself out of a 16-point halftime hole and couldn’t survive going 5 of 24 from 3-point range against the Spartans.
“We’ve got to put two halves together,” Pritzl said. “The second half we played well, so if we can just string them together I think we’ll be good.”
The Badgers made the game interesting in the second half mainly because they did a better job of working the ball inside and executing once they got touches in that area.
According to Gard, UW went 2 of 10 in the paint in the first half, with five of those misses the result of blocked shots. After halftime, the Badgers were an efficient 14 of 16 in the paint.
“It was lack of execution and sticking to principles, pump fakes and shot fakes, things like that,” Pritzl said. “The second half, we started doing (those things), we started gathering ourselves and we started finishing.”
That was especially true of Happ, who went 0 of 8 from the field in the first half and 7 of 11 the rest of the way.
Happ helped the Badgers outscore the Spartans 19-9 over the opening 10 minutes of the second half and finished over Michigan State’s Nick Ward to cut the Spartans’ lead to 46-40 with 9:51 left.
UW had a chance to pull closer, but Happ had a shot blocked during a possession that ended with freshman guard Brad Davison missing a 3-pointer.
Winston followed with a 3-pointer to start a 7-0 run that also included a 3-pointer from Bridges late in the shot clock.
The Badgers, whose interior defense was almost non-existent during an 85-67 loss at Iowa on Tuesday night, did an admirable job protecting the paint against Michigan State’s loaded frontcourt.
But the Spartans, who finished with 24 points in the paint, found other ways to score. Bridges did most of his damage on jump shots, including another buzzer-beating 3-pointer late in the first half.
“Adding the (3-pointer) to his game has made him harder to guard,” Gard said of Bridges, who went 4 of 6 from beyond the arc. “Obviously, he’s explosive to the rim and he does a good job of putting the ball on the floor. But adding that (outside shot), it not only puts you in position to have to guard him more alertly on the perimeter but also stretches your defense.”
Winston provided some daggers as well. After Happ scored to pull UW within nine points, Winston made two 3-pointers over the span of three possessions to give Michigan State a 59-44 lead with 4:28 left.
While making it clear he’s not a fan of claiming moral victories, Happ said he was pleased with the way the Badgers fought back.
“We’re not going to quit until the last game of the season, until we hang them up,” he said. “We need that second-half performance every night as far as intensity goes.”
Gard echoed that statement as his team packed its bags to return home, where the Badgers play Nebraska on Monday night and Northwestern three days later.
“There’s no quit in these guys,” Gard said. “Hope isn’t a strategy, we’re going to fight and keep trying to improve. Hopefully tonight was a step, now we’ve got to keep building.”
Michigan State scandal grows
Michigan State's win came less than 12 hours after athletic director Mark Hollis announced his retirement amid the outcry over how the school handled allegations against gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who will spend the rest of his life in prison for sexually assaulting patients.
The scope of the scandal at Michigan State grew Friday with an ESPN report detailing various allegations involving Michigan State football and basketball players.
"There are a lot of things that happened today that are part of life," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the game.
The court was surrounded by a sea of teal T-shirts worn by students, hoping to raise awareness about sexual violence.
"Honoring our survivors was really neat that our students did it," Izzo said.
Hollis, a close friend of Izzo, is retiring as the latest leader to step away because of a sexual abuse scandal involving a former physician at the school. Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon announced her resignation Wednesday night, hours after Nassar was sentenced to decades in prison this week for molesting girls and young women.
Izzo refused to answer many questions related to the scandal, saying the top priority is for "our courageous survivors," during the healing process.
"I'm going to worry about my team, I'm going to worry about the survivors and I'm going to worry about what I do," he said.
Izzo, though, said he has no intention on being the next to leave Michigan State.
"I'm not going anywhere, in my mind," Izzo said. "I'm definitely not retiring."
Izzo's mood the rest of the season will be something to watch. Izzo was the best man at Hollis' wedding and they were roommates decades ago when they were starting their careers at Michigan State. Choosing to keep his emotions to himself, Izzo didn't answer a question asking for his reaction to Hollis' decision.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.