SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Say this for a University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team that is lacking in a lot of areas at this stage of the season, with experience topping that list:
Just when it might seem like they’re down for the count, the Badgers have shown the ability to pick themselves up off the mat and continue fighting.
UW has followed all three of its losses this season with victories, the most surprising of which came Wednesday night at the Carrier Dome.
Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds, junior forward Nigel Hayes gave a struggling offense a big lift with his scoring and passing and the Badgers upset No. 14 Syracuse 66-58 in overtime in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game.
UW may be young, but the toughness that has been one of the bedrocks of coach Bo Ryan’s successful run has been on display at some crucial times already this season.
“I think we’re getting there,” Hayes said after producing 15 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. “We’re not as tough as last year’s team or as tough as we’re going to be down the road, but the adversity we went through today will definitely put some hair on the you-know-whats.”
Good luck figuring out the puzzle that is these Badgers (5-3).
After opening the season with a shocking home loss to Western Illinois, UW bounced back two days later with a victory over Siena.
That was expected. It’s how the Badgers have responded to their two most recent defeats that has been really impressive.
After UW lost to Georgetown in a semifinal of the 2K Classic in New York on Nov. 20, it beat VCU in a tight game less than 48 hours later.
And on Wednesday, three days after their worst shooting performance in nearly a decade during a 65-48 loss at No. 7 Oklahoma, the young Badgers produced a statement victory.
“This is what we have,” Ryan said. “People will probably be having contests like, ‘OK, how are they going to play tonight? Because if we aren’t the biggest mystery right now in the country, I don’t know who is as far as trying to find some consistency. But we’re going to keep working.”
That’s what happened against the Orange, and nobody was a bigger embodiment of that feistiness than Happ.
The Badgers were trailing 41-35 with just under 11 minutes remaining in regulation when Happ was called for traveling for the fourth time in the game.
Did the youngster sulk or go in a shell? Not at all. Over the final 13:39 of the game, including overtime, Happ had 10 points and six rebounds to help UW outscore Syracuse 31-17.
Happ admitted he was frustrated by the turnovers, but he did an impressive job of playing through the miscues.
“Resilient and tough,” Happ said, “is what we need to be throughout the season.”
The Badgers overcame 20 turnovers by outrebounding the Orange 51-25, including 16-6 on the offensive glass.
“I thought our guys were hungry going after the ball,” Ryan said.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim couldn’t say the same about his team.
“We got crushed on the boards,” he said.
Boeheim thought the other stat that decided the game was production at the free throw line. UW went 11 of 12, while Syracuse was 11 of 20.
The Orange also struggled from 3-point range. After shooting 41.1 percent from 3-point range through its first six games, which included a tournament title at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week, Syracuse was just 7 of 24 (29.2 percent) against the Badgers.
“We played just as hard, probably just as well as we played in the tournament,” Boeheim said. “But we shot 50 percent from the 3 and we didn’t miss free throws (there). It’s as simple as that.”
Even as poorly as UW has shot from the perimeter this season, Boeheim expected the Badgers to be good against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone based on a previous meeting between the programs.
The key for UW this time was Hayes. A halftime adjustment in which Hayes was moved to the middle of the zone paid dividends because it allowed one of the Badgers’ best playmakers to attack the soft area of Syracuse’s zone.
“It was his play inside that turned it around,” Ryan said.
UW rallied from a 52-48 deficit late in the game and had a chance to win the game in regulation. But junior forward Vitto Brown, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, came up short on a 10-foot jumper.
After Syracuse scored the first two points of overtime, the Badgers answered with a 9-0 run. Junior guard Zak Showalter started it with a tough bank shot and Hayes gave UW the lead for good with a three-point play.
Happ scored the final four points of the run, starting with a dunk after a nice feed from Showalter.
The Orange pulled to within 62-58 on a 3-pointer by senior guard Michael Gbinije, who finished with a game-high 19 points. But junior point guard Bronson Koenig, who scored 12 points, made four free throws over the final 18.7 seconds to ice it for UW.
Three days and 1,400 miles removed from an ugly performance at Oklahoma, the Badgers responded with a blue-collar win. The timing couldn’t have been better for a young team.
“I don’t believe in must-wins, just because it’s so early in the season,” Happ said. “But this is as close as it gets to a must-win.”