A Big Ten road win was there for the taking Friday night at the Rutgers Athletic Center, but the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team couldn’t close the deal.
“I definitely think this is one we should have had and let slip away,” freshman guard Brad Davison said in a phone interview after the Badgers’ 64-60 loss to Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Junior guard Corey Sanders hit two huge shots down the stretch and finished with a game-high 23 points to help the Scarlet Knights earn their first conference win of the season.
UW sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl returned to the lineup after missing one game with a concussion and finished with 13 points to share team-high scoring honors with Davison.
Junior center Ethan Happ had 10 points and 10 rebounds and freshman forward Nate Reuvers also had 10 points for the Badgers (9-8, 2-2 Big Ten), who had their five-game winning streak snapped and wasted a chance to go three games above .500 for the first time this season.
Senior forward Deshawn Freeman added 15 points for the Scarlet Knights (11-6, 1-3), who had lost to Hartford and Stony Brook in their two previous home games. Rutgers only had one day to prepare for UW after returning home from an 82-51 loss at Purdue on Wednesday night, but Scarlet Knights coach Steve Pikiell was pleased with how his team responded after the quick turnaround.
“We were locked in,” he said.
The Badgers, meanwhile, will be kicking themselves after this defeat.
UW finished with 14 turnovers in 61 possessions, with Happ and Davison combining for 12.
“The most important thing was taking care of the ball, and we didn’t do that well enough,” UW coach Greg Gard said on his postgame radio show. “We put ourselves in position, but you’ve got to be able to maximize every possession and we had 14 of them … where we didn’t do a good job. When you’re in a tight game like that, man, it’d be nice to have eight, 10 of those possessions back.”
The Badgers probably could have survived the turnovers if they had shot the ball better from the perimeter. Instead, they missed their first 10 attempts from 3-point range and finished 2 of 13 for the game.
In five games against Rutgers since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten prior to the 2014-15 season, UW is 22 of 89 (24.7 percent) from beyond the arc. That includes a 5-for-21 performance during the Badgers’ previous trip to the RAC in 2015 and a 3-for-25 outing during an overtime win over Rutgers last season at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“With how they play, you have to be able to knock down some shots from the perimeter,” Gard said. “And going 2-for-13 allowed them to condense it and pack it even more. They obviously do a good job of getting to shooters and contesting things. By and large, every time we’ve played them that’s been a huge stat that we’ve had to try to overcome and we weren’t able to do it tonight.”
The Badgers led 33-28 after a basket by Reuvers with 16 minutes, 57 seconds remaining in the game. But Rutgers answered with a 14-2 run that included five points from Sanders and a three-point play by forward Eugene Omoruyi.
That burst gave the Scarlet Knights a 42-35 lead with 11:25 left, but UW methodically cut into that deficit and pulled within one point on a basket by senior forward Aaron Moesch with 6:28 left.
When Rutgers used a 6-0 spurt to build a seven-point lead with 3:33 remaining, the Badgers responded with a 7-0 run that included two free throws by redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford, a dunk by junior forward Khalil Iverson after a nice feed from Happ and a 3-pointer by Davison that tied the game at 53 with 2:06 left.
It was the first connection from beyond the arc all night for the Badgers.
But Sanders took over from there, making a long jumper with 1:44 left to give the Scarlet Knights the lead for good. He followed with a deep 3-pointer over Happ on the next possession and made a free throw to stretch Rutgers’ lead to 59-53 with 47.2 seconds left.
“He’s a great player,” Davison said of Sanders, who went 10 of 19 from the field and made both of his attempts from beyond the arc. “Our goal was to make him hit pull-ups and 3s over the top of us, which I thought we did a pretty good job of. You’ve got to give him credit, he knocked a lot of them down.
UW trailed 25-24 at halftime after going 0 of 8 from 3-point range and committing eight turnovers in 29 possessions in the first half.
Happ, who scored a career-high 32 points against Rutgers in last season’s meeting in New York, had five turnovers in only 11 minutes in the first half. He didn’t play the final 5:33 of the half after being called for traveling for the third time, but UW outscored Rutgers 9-6 with its star on the bench.
Gard was asked in his postgame radio appearance if the Scarlet Knights’ length bothered Happ, who finished with a career-high seven turnovers.
“I think it was more of Ethan not taking his time,” Gard said. “I thought he got sped up right from the beginning. I thought most of that was self-inflicted. There were a few that they affected, but I thought by and large it was just trying to play too fast.”
Davison also acknowledged that he got too rushed at times. He finished with five turnovers, including two in the final 5 minutes, to go along with a game-high five assists.
“I take responsibility for that,” Davison said. “It’s something I need to do a lot better job of.”