MADISON, Wis. - What a difference three weeks can make. After allowing the Minnesota Golden Gophers to push them around in an 81-68 loss at Williams Arena on Jan. 22 the No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers scored some payback on their archrivals on Thursday night, handing the Gophers a 78-70 loss in their rematch at the Kohl Center.
This time around the Badges played like the more physical team, and they withstood a late surge by the Gophers to pull out the win and move within half a game of third place in the Big Ten behind the Iowa Hawkeyes. The win is Wisconsin's third in a row after they dropped five of six games between Jan. 14 and Feb. 1, and their fourth-straight home win over the Gophers.
The Badgers (20-5, 7-5 Big Ten) shot 48.8 percent from the floor against the Gophers (16-9, 5-7), but Wisconsin did their best work on the defensive side of the ball. Minnesota shot just 41.1 percent (14-for-34) on 2-pointers on Thursday night compared to 59.1 percent three weeks ago, but Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said his team didn't change up their defensive game plan for the Gophers.
"[We didn't do] one thing differently," Ryan said of his team's defense. "We just did it better."
The Gophers struggled in the paint after three of their big men picked up two fouls early on in the first half. Forward Joey King, center Elliot Eliason and forward Maurice Walker combined to score just 12 points for the Gophers in 63 minutes of action, and took just eight total shots in the game. Getting Minnesota's big men into early foul trouble also opened up the paint for the Badgers as a whole- they finished the game shooting 53.5 percent on 2-point field goals.
Wisconsin also forced the Gophers to turn the ball over 13 times in the game and scored 13 points off of those extra possessions. They finished the game scoring 1.24 points per possession, but a late shooting spree by the Gophers helped Minnesota finish at 1.04. The Badgers aim to hold their opponents to 1.0 or less, so Ryan said he still thinks his team has some work to do on defense down the stretch.
"We could have given up 38 points and I'd find deficiencies, so you've got to take what I say with a grain of salt," Ryan said. "We've got a lot of work to do defensively, and we try to do it every day- because I see things that other people don't."
Senior guard Ben Brust led the Badgers with 20 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the floor, including 4-for-4 from behind the arc. Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker also finished in double digits for the Badgers, and the team as a whole made 30-of-36 shots from the free throw line.
And now with just six games left in the regular season it appears as though the Badgers have pulled themselves out of the six-game nosedive that exposed many offensive and defensive flaws. But they'll have to keep their winning ways up on the road if they want to secure a first round bye in next month's Big Ten tournament or even compete for the regular season conference title.
Four of their final six games are on the road, with back-to-back trips to No. 15 Michigan and No. 16 Iowa coming up over the next nine days. They'll likely need to win both games if they want to jump the Wolverines and the Hawkeyes in the standings before the end of the regular season, but the Badgers said they can't afford to worry about where their next wins could come from or if they're still in the hunt for a Big Ten title. They've fought to hard to right their ship after a mid-season swoon, and looking beyond their next 40 minutes on the court could cost them against a team that already came into the Kohl Center and beat them this season.
"I'm done looking at anything," Brust said when asked if he or his teammates are paying attention to the conference standings. "I think we just need to focus on whoever's next for us, and it's Michigan at Michigan. It's a really good opportunity to play a really good team on the road and I'm excited for that."
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.