MADISON, Wis. - What was once a dream season for the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers has quickly devolved into a nightmare. After starting a program-best 16-0, the Badgers have now lost five of their last six games after the No. 24 Ohio State Buckeyes came back to beat UW, 59-58, Saturday at the Kohl Center.
Wisconsin (17-5, 4-5 Big Ten) led Ohio State by seven points with less than eight minutes to play in the game, but didn't score another field goal in the final 6:42 of regulation. They had a chance to win the game or send it to overtime after Ohio State guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr., turned the ball over with just eight seconds left on the clock. But Sam Dekker missed a 3-pointer right before the buzzer after Traevon Jackson lost control of his dribble down the court.
Dekker's shot and Jackson's near turnover capped a poor performance down the stretch for the Badgers, who missed their final five shots from the field and made just 4-of-10 free throws down the stretch. Wisconsin's late-game slump allowed the Buckeyes to climb back into the game after they shot just 38.5 percent in the first half.
Freshman forward Nigel Hayes led all scorers with 17 points, and gave the Badgers a spark after halftime. Hayes made 5-of-6 shots from the field in the second half, but his and his teammates' poor free throw shooting hurt the Badgers late in the game. The team made just 6-of-14 free throws after halftime, and Hayes took partial responsibility after he shot just 5-for-11 from the charity stripe in the game.
"I missed more free throws than I made and that's a big problem," Hayes said. "I really have to start converting from the free throw line. Getting there is not the problem. I just need to start making my shots so I can help the team."
Both teams finished relatively even at 1.05 points per possession. And while Wisconsin's five starters combined to shoot 11-for-35 from the field in the game, head coach Bo Ryan said after the game that he's not thinking about making any changes to his starting lineup as his team moves in to their final nine conference games.
"You just keep playing. You're not going to reinvent the game of basketball. But guys have to be able to step up and hit shots," Ryan said. "Obviously we didn't. Missed some free throws, missed some wide-open shots for threes. If you expect to be on the left-hand side you've got to make some of those."
But while you shouldn't expect to see anyone other than Dekker, Jackson, Ben Brust, Josh Gasser and Frank Kaminsky in Wisconsin's starting lineup any time soon, Ryan said there are things he can do to try and change things up to get his team on track before it's too late.
"If you have bright guys who work hard and are buying into the system, if you take guys and move them out what you're saying is it's their fault. I don't do that," Ryan said. "It's all of us together. But guys have responsibilities. They have to trust in each other and those responsibilities, and I've certainly seen it a lot of times where guys can shake the lineup up by not playing as many minutes.
"I know it's always easy to sit there and say 'start three other guys' … I understand. But the thing is you still need those guys on board, and you still need them playing hard, playing defense, rebounding, and getting ready for the next one."
The problem is that the Badgers are running out of time to right the ship. Their loss to Ohio State dropped them into a three-way tie for fifth place with the Buckeyes and Northwestern, and are now in serious danger of finishing below fourth place in the Big Ten for the first time in Ryan's career at Wisconsin.
Brust said after the game that the Badgers have "got to change something" as they move into the second half of a Big Ten season that's been brutal for a team many thought would be a Final Four contender just a few weeks ago. Upcoming games against No. 7 Michigan State, No. 10 Michigan and No. 15 Iowa give the Badgers a chance to wake up and pretend that the month of January was nothing more than a bad dream.
But losing to an Ohio State team that had just lost five of its last six games could mean that Wisconsin's 16-0 start and No. 3 national ranking was the real dream; one that's since been shattered by poor defense, inefficient possessions, and the big, bad Big Ten conference.
Post-game audio from Bo Ryan and select Wisconsin players is included below.
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.