MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin Badgers led the Michigan State Spartans by as many as 10 points in the second half, but with less than a minute to play they found themselves with their backs to the wall once again. They played the Spartans tough for 38 minutes in the Kohl Center on Sunday, but once again it looked like the Badgers were about to let another home win slip through their fingers.
A late 3-pointer by Michigan State center Adrian Payne pulled the Spartans into a 58-58 tie with the Badgers with 10 seconds left, putting them dangerously close to losing a fourth straight home game for the first time under head coach Bo Ryan.
After Payne's big shot both teams knew what would come next: Traevon Jackson took the in-bounds pass and ran up the court looking to play the hero. It was a situation the Badgers have seen before many times, but Jackson botched his chance for a game-winning shot against Ohio State over a week ago, handing the Badgers a tough 59-58 loss to the reeling Buckeyes.
But this time Jackson drove to his left and hit a two-point jumper with two seconds left to hand the Spartans a 60-58 loss, snapping a five-game losing streak to Michigan State and giving the Badgers some life after a difficult seven-game stretch.
"I think my teammates put me in a good position," Jackson said in his post game press conference. "That's sort of what they expected out of me, is to finish the game. I was just thinking that we needed to get a shot up. I didn't want to take it to the hole; I didn't want it to get blocked. The pull-up was there, and I was blessed to be able to make it go in."
The Badgers (19-5, 6-5 Big Ten) finished the game shooting 45.2 percent from the field, and built up an eight-point halftime lead thanks to a strong defensive effort. The Spartans (20-4, 9-2) shot just 32.3 percent in the first half, and the Badgers held leading scorer Gary Harris to just 6 points on 3-of-20 shooting from the field.
Junior guard Josh Gasser was matched against Harris for most of the game, and Ryan said that Harris' performance was a combination of good defense by Gasser and a few other factors.
"Josh worked as hard as he normally works," Ryan said. "He got some help from teammates also. When a guy has an off night, is it an off night? Is it that something isn't right on the shot? Or something goes a little haywire? You never know. The answer is always a combination, somewhere in between."
Freshman forward Nigel Hayes led the Badgers with 14 points off of the bench, shooting 3-for-5 from the floor and making 8-of-12 free throws. Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky and Gasser also scored in double figures for Wisconsin, giving them four double-digit scorers for the 16th time in 24 games.
The Badgers also got big 3-point shots late in the game from Ben Brust and Kaminsky to give them some breathing room as the Spartans mounted their comeback, but Jackson's jumper reaffirmed his status as Wisconsin's go-to guy in late-game situations after the junior made a few questionable decisions and struggled with consistency while entrenched in a 16-for-52 shooting slump over his last six games.
"He's the guy that earned that spot," Ryan said of Jackson. "He proved it last year with some big plays. But what happens is if teams take that away from him his job is to get it to the open guy. His decision-making has been a little sporadic at times. But in a last-second situation, if it starts in his hands, I feel very confident that we are going to get something."
The Badgers will have to hope that Jackson gives them more of the same over their final seven regular season games. They'll head out on the road to take on two ranked teams, No. 10 Michigan and No. 17 Iowa, in the next two weeks, and can't afford to fall into another prolonged slump if they want to stay in contention for a Big Ten title.
But Jackson's shot breathed more life into a team that many had left for dead after they lost five of six games in a month's time. Now tied for fourth place in the Big Ten with Ohio State, the Badgers still have time to make a late run if they play like the team that started their season 16-0.
Now on a two-game winning streak after beating Illinois 75-63 on Tuesday, the Badgers might not be quite the team that people thought they were after that torrid start, but their win over Michigan State suggests that reports of their demise were greatly exaggerated.
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.