Wisconsin vs. Northwestern

Wisconsin center Ethan Happ battles for the ball against Northwestern center Barret Benson, left, and forward A.J. Turner during the first half of the Badgers' 69-64 win over the Wildcats on Saturday at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill.

EVANSTON, Ill. – Almost every game in Big Ten play has been a close encounter for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, and senior center Ethan Happ was expecting more of the same Saturday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“We know that we’re going to be in for a dogfight,” Happ said earlier this week, “when we go there.”

Happ and Co. got just that from Northwestern. Afterward, the No. 22 Badgers were breathing a huge sigh of relief after escaping with a 69-64 victory over the last-place Wildcats.

Sophomore guard Brad Davison scored 16 points for UW (19-8, 11-5 Big Ten), including a pair of clutch free throws down the stretch. Happ and sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice added 14 points apiece, while senior forward Khalil Iverson had 11 and made some huge plays to help the Badgers avoid an upset.

The win helped UW improve to 6-2 in Big Ten road games and 9-5 overall away from home this season. It also kept the Badgers in sole possession of fifth place in the Big Ten standings, two games behind a three-way tie for first place entering the final two weeks of the regular season.

Eleven of UW’s first 15 Big Ten games were either one- or two-possession games going into the final five minutes. Two others were within three possessions.

Add another close one to the list. UW was actually trailing by two points when the 5-minute mark arrived on Saturday night.

The tight games are wreaking havoc on fans’ nerves – and UW coach Greg Gard’s hairline, he joked – but Davison had a different reaction to the latest nail-biter.

“It’s so much fun. I love it,” Davison said on the court after the game. “This is what I’ve always dreamed about, this is what I signed up for, what we all signed up for. You want to play in the best conference from top to bottom in the country, just because you get challenged each and every day.”

Senior forward Vic Law scored a game-high 24 points and senior center Dererk Pardon added 21 for Northwestern (12-15, 3-13), which lost its eighth consecutive game.

The Wildcats haven’t been as good at finishing games as the Badgers, and it showed in this matchup.

“We just weren’t able to get over the hump,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “You’re not always worthy of winning. I thought tonight we were.”

The only times the Badgers could coast to the finish in Big Ten play this season were at Penn State in early January and against the Wildcats later that month, when Happ produced his second triple-double of the season in a 62-46 win at the Kohl Center.

But this time, Northwestern made the Badgers sweat it out.

UW used an 8-2 run that included six points from Happ to build a 53-46 lead with 7 minutes, 54 seconds remaining.

But the Wildcats answered with an 11-2 burst, with Law doing all the scoring. He made three 3-pointers during the run, with the final one in that stretch giving Northwestern a 57-55 lead with 5:06 remaining.

But Iverson answered with some big plays of his own, converting two three-point plays in a span of four possessions. The second one broke a 60-all tie with 2:57 to go.

“If you lose sight of him around the basket,” Collins said, “he makes you pay.”

After Pardon scored in traffic, Davison attempted an off-balance baseline jumper that danced around the rim before falling to give UW a 65-62 lead with 1:56 remaining.

“That’s one of those where you say, ‘No, no, no, great shot,’ ” Gard said. “He wants the ball in his hands, he’s fearless like that.”

Davison missed 3-pointers on consecutive possessions, and Law cut the Wildcats’ deficit to 65-64 by making two free throws with 15.1 seconds left.

But Davison was fouled on the ensuing possession and made two free throws with 8.9 seconds left to give the Badgers a three-point lead. After a timeout with 4 seconds remaining, Trice did a good job keeping the ball away from Law and Northwestern was forced to go to its Plan B.

Collins was OK with the look the Wildcats got – an attempt by Aaron Falzon from the right wing – but it missed and UW sophomore forward Nate Reuvers grabbed the rebound. Reuvers was fouled immediately and made two free throws with 0.4 seconds left to seal the win.

It was exactly the dogfight the Badgers expected, and Davison believes they’re better for having gone through it.

“Win or lose, you can learn from it and you improve from it,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re all playing for March. This game got us better for March, for sure. You’ve got to find new ways to win every night.”

Bucky!

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