In some ways, looking at the final stat sheet, it was fair to wonder how in the world the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team even had a chance to escape the Kohl Center with a victory Saturday afternoon.
Not only did their two best players have poor shooting performances, the Badgers also were manhandled in the paint by Marquette.
Afterward, coach Bo Ryan praised the effort and grit his team showed while rallying from a double-digit deficit. But that didn’t change a frustrating bottom line for UW:
Golden Eagles 57, Badgers 55.
“In the end, you come up short,” Ryan said. “It’s still a 40-minute game. But I tell you, there are some teams that when things weren’t going real well would not have come back the way our guys did. I really like that.”
That doesn’t change the fact UW (6-5) has lost three home games by a combined five points this season or that it has lost back-to-back non-conference home games for the first time in 25 years.
Freshman forward Henry Ellenson had 15 points and 11 rebounds to help Marquette (8-2), a team with even less experience than UW, extend its winning streak to seven games.
Junior center Luke Fischer had 12 points and scored the winning basket late in the game to help the Golden Eagles, who were playing their first true road game of the season, end a two-game losing streak to the Badgers and win the 122nd meeting of this in-state rivalry.
“We knew it was going to be a very difficult game and we would have to show great maturity and toughness,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “I thought our players did both. I thought they showed incredible maturity from start to finish and toughness to withstand a great run and make some big defensive (stops) and rebounds to finish out the game.”
Marquette used an 18-3 run that stretched over both halves to build a comfortable cushion. The Golden Eagles led 46-32 after Ellenson’s 3-pointer with 11 minutes, 32 seconds remaining, but the Badgers tightened their defense, finally hit a few shots and rallied to tie the game twice in the closing minutes.
Each time, Marquette’s big men had an answer, leading Wojciechowski to say, “I wouldn’t trade them for any frontcourt in the country.”
After UW junior forward Vitto Brown’s jumper tied it at 53, Ellenson scored on a spin move to give Marquette the lead.
After Hayes banked in a jumper from a tough angle to tie it at 55, Fischer scored on a putback with 29.5 seconds remaining to give the Golden Eagles the lead for good.
UW did a good job of making Ellenson take a tough shot on the possession, but Fischer got free in front of rim for an easy putback.
“I was just in the right spot at the right time,” Fischer said. “No one came to box me out, so I had a pretty easy offensive board and putback. It couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Fischer provided the final blow in a one-sided battle in the paint. Marquette finished with 36 points in that area, compared to only 16 for the Badgers.
“That’s where we can be dominant, with us two,” Ellenson said. “Our teammates, our guards, do a great job of getting us the ball inside and we’re able to get good shots off it.”
UW, meanwhile, struggled for much of the game to get good shots and finished at 36.4 percent from the field.
Junior forward Vitto Brown bounced back from a bad shooting night during a loss to UW-Milwaukee three days earlier to score a game-high 15 points and lead four Badgers in double figures.
But UW’s top two scorers, junior forward Nigel Hayes and junior point guard Bronson Koenig, combined for 18 points on 7-for-29 shooting.
Marquette attacked Koenig with two defenders off the high ball screen, while the Golden Eagles doubled Hayes every time he touched the ball on the low block. Those are things other opponents have done to them this season, but the Badgers once again had a difficult time making the defense pay for being aggressive.
UW, which was averaging 22.5 free throw attempts entering the game, got to the line a season-low four times against the Golden Eagles and made only one free throw.
“They did a good job of walling up with their bigs inside,” Ryan said. “They shut down a lot of penetration to the rim and if you’re not getting there, you can’t get those bumps that they’re calling now. You can’t get the fouls.”
Despite the disparity in the paint and its inability to get to the rim or the free throw line, UW still had a chance to win the game. But after Fischer’s putback, Hayes missed badly on two shots on the Badgers’ ensuing possession.
Marquette missed two free throws in the closing seconds, but Fischer kept the possession alive with an offensive rebound and less than a second remained on the clock when UW finally got the ball back. UW redshirt freshman Ethan Happ, inbounding the ball from the sideline, threw a heave down the court that went out of bounds for a turnover, leaving the Badgers with their first two-game losing streak of the season.
“Whenever you win or lose, you always remember that it’s not as bad as it is or as good as it is,” Hayes said. “We can see (from) that little run that we had that we are capable of playing a better brand of basketball and if we can put that span into an entire game, then obviously we’ll be a much better team.”