NEW YORK — A month ago the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team wouldn’t have won a game like this. We know that because a month ago it didn’t win a game like this.
In a five-point loss at Maryland on Feb. 4, the Badgers weren’t good enough or consistent enough to win an unsightly, grind-it-out Big Ten Conference game. In a rematch with the Terps on Thursday at the conference tournament, they were.
Ninth-seeded UW’s 59-54 victory over eighth-seeded Maryland at Madison Square Garden advanced it to a quarterfinal game Friday against top-seeded Michigan State and clearly demonstrated the growth the Badgers have made since losing a month ago.
“I thought it was very similar to how we played at Maryland,” coach Greg Gard said. “Thought we were a little better down the stretch today than what we were there.”
They were better in every way, and the victory over Maryland is proof. UW shot 36 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from 3-point range, a shooting performance that would have doomed it to defeat for much of the season. But not Thursday. Actually, not for the last month.
“I definitely feel like we’ve grown so much,” forward Aleem Ford said. “It was a different team a month ago and we probably wouldn’t have punched back as much as we did today when they were making their runs and trying to take the lead. But from a month ago until now, it is definitely a completely different team.”
More than anything, it is a team that has started doing the little things it takes to win games. When you don’t have an athletic creator at point guard, aren’t overloaded with 3-point shooters and have a leading scorer who gets double-teamed every time he touches the ball, you need to do everything else well because offense doesn’t come easily.
Against Maryland, UW had numerous chances to extend its lead but couldn’t do it because it never caught a hot streak. Just the opposite. The Badgers had an 0-for-8 shooting stretch in the first half and a 1-for-9 stretch in the second.
It was everything else that stood out, though. The Badgers got to the free throw line, made their free throws, turned the ball over only seven times, battled to a stalemate on the boards and played stubborn defense from start to finish. Especially that last part.
“We’re starting to find defense is our identity instead of trying to outscore or outpower people,” guard Brevin Pritzl said. “We can’t do that. Sure, at times we can outpower people offensively if we’re executing, but for the most part defense and our defensive rebounding has got to be our identity. Today we did a much better job. I think we held them to one point per possession, which is a big stat. But we rebounded much better today than we did against Michigan State (in a loss Sunday). We made the crucial plays when we needed to.”
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Maryland is a difficult team to guard, in large part because jet-quick point guard Anthony Cowan and 6-foot-7 sharpshooter Kevin Huerter form the Big Ten’s most potent backcourt. Both heated up at times Thursday, but the Badgers still held the Terps 20 points below their average.
UW’s team defense has been dramatically improved the past month, especially forward Khalil Iverson, who has emerged as a defensive stopper. Iverson spent the game flipping back and forth between Cowan and Huerter, trying to cool off whichever one was hot. Then he made the defensive play of the game by stealing an inbounds pass and hitting the game-clinching free throws.
“I feel like we’ve all bought in,” Ford said. “We’re making sure that we’re taking care of the little things on defense. We just have some pride on that end of the floor.”
On the offensive end, the Badgers have been getting clutch shooting from Pritzl and fellow guard Brad Davison. In the final 2 minutes Thursday, each broke a tie with a tough jumper under duress. UW also made 16 of its 18 free throws in the second half, including five of six by center Ethan Happ.
“I think one of the biggest things is we’ve got guys making plays down the stretch,” Happ said. “Brevin’s been big in the last couple of games, knocking down shots, and he had a big pull-up here. Brad is starting to really come into his own and knock down shots at the end.”
And one more thing. The Badgers are once again playing with a sense of purpose, something they’re known for but something they lost earlier this season. That became apparent when the game was tied at 53 with 1:23 to play.
At that point, Pritzl missed a 3-point shot but Iverson tracked down the rebound. Then Davison missed a 3 and Happ snared the rebound. Finally, Pritzl sank an 18-footer to cap off a minute-long possession.
“That’s extra effort right there,” Happ said. “Khalil did a great job. I saw Brad’s shot go up and, to be honest with you, if it was 10 minutes left in the first half, I probably would have gotten back on defense. But since it was that important of a time, I went in trying to get an offensive rebound and luckily it bounced up high enough to where I was able to get in there in time.”
UW has been doing that a lot in the last month, which is why its season is still alive.