BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team walked into a hornets’ nest Saturday night and got stung.
The pain should disappear quickly for the Badgers – they have no choice but to brush it off and move on – but the resulting scar could serve as an unsightly blemish come March.
Taveion Hollingsworth scored 22 points and Dalano Banton flirted with a triple-double to help Western Kentucky gain a measure of revenge with an 83-76 upset win over No. 15 UW.
The Hilltoppers and their fans had been waiting for this game for over a year, and that showed both on the court and in the stands. A sellout crowd of 7,614 raised the decibel level at E.A. Diddle Arena from before the opening tip until the final buzzer, and Hollingsworth and his teammates fed off that energy.
When the Western Kentucky fans weren’t cheering on their team, they were booing UW sophomore guard Brad Davison. It was Davison’s free throw with 2 seconds remaining after a controversial foul call that helped the Badgers escape with an 81-80 victory over the Hilltoppers in Madison last December.
“Everybody in Bowling Green thought about that one play,” Hollingsworth said. “Now we finally got our chance to play them again, look at the result.”
The result wasn’t pretty for UW (10-3), which had put together an impressive non-conference resume until losing to the Jekyll-and-Hyde Hilltoppers.
A loss to a team currently No. 147 in the NET rankings could be a pock on the Badgers’ profile when it comes time for the NCAA tournament committee to select and seed its 68-team field in 11 weeks.
Of course, this victory could be a sign of things to come for Western Kentucky. If the Hilltoppers win Conference USA and earn an NCAA tournament berth, the loss won’t end up looking so ugly for UW.
The Hilltoppers (7-6) certainly looked more like a team that had three wins over top 60 KenPom teams (West Virginia, Arkansas and Saint Mary’s) than one with three head-scratching losses (Indiana State, Missouri State and Troy).
Even the absence of two rotation players, Marek Nelson (suspension) and former Germantown standout Lamonte Bearden (ankle), didn’t stop Western Kentucky from putting on an offensive clinic.
Banton produced eight points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, while Charles Bassey had 19 points and four blocks. Two other players, Jared Savage (16 points) and Josh Anderson (15), reached double figures.
“This was their Super Bowl,” Davison said. “That’s what it’s about. It was a hostile environment against a really good team, those are the games we want to play. We know a lot of the Big Ten teams don’t have road games like that this time of year. But, you know what, we’re getting ready for March and that’s a good game, a good learning opportunity for us moving forward and we’re excited to get back to work.”
UW has plenty to fix before it jumps back into Big Ten play with a game against visiting Minnesota on Thursday.
Davison seemed to feed off the boos and was terrific, finishing with a season-high 26 points and four steals.
But the Badgers’ two leading scorers, senior center Ethan Happ and sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice, didn’t display the same cool under pressure as Davison. Happ and Trice both struggled with poor shot selection at times and were a combined 13 of 35 from the field.
While Happ finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds, he was 9 of 23 from the field and was outplayed by Bassey in a marquee matchup of big men. Bassey, a potential one-and-done NBA first-round pick, blocked three of Happ’s shots and altered many others while making sure the UW standout never got in a rhythm around the rim.
“I think the biggest thing was that I felt a little rushed at the beginning and when the first couple didn’t go, I kind of felt off,” Happ said. “Obviously, Bassey did a good job on me, credit to him, but at the same time I felt kind of off the whole night.”
The Badgers took a 34-30 lead into halftime despite playing the final 5 minutes, 56 seconds without Happ because of foul trouble. But UW turned into a sieve defensively in the second half.
Western Kentucky scored 53 points after halftime, averaging 1.36 points per possession while shooting 67.9 percent from the field.
Some of it was things falling right for the Hilltoppers. Sophomore guard Jake Ohmer scored his first points of the season on a 3-pointer, while Banton, a 22-percent shooter from beyond the arc, banked in one of his two 3-pointers after halftime.
But breakdowns by the Badgers played a big role as well. UW allowed too much dribble penetration to Hollingsworth and others and let Bassey get some deep touches, leading to 40 points in the paint for Western Kentucky.
Meanwhile, bad offense for UW in the form of poor shot selection and turnovers led to easy baskets in transition for the Hilltoppers.
“When you’re playing in a hostile environment on the road against a good team, you don’t have many mulligans in your pocket,” UW coach Greg Gard said. “So you can’t give away opportunities that create momentum or energy and fuel their fire more, and we did too much of that.”
A 9-0 run early in the second half helped Western Kentucky erase its four-point halftime deficit, while a 14-4 burst later in the half created some separation for the Hilltoppers.
UW was within 69-65 after a pair of free throws by Davison with 2:44 remaining, but Hollingsworth scored four points to start a 7-0 spurt that sealed the win.
“They were very efficient offensively,” Davison said. “They hit some tough shots, but we had some defensive lapses that gave them confidence. Especially when you’re on the road, you can’t have those lapses. … When teams get confidence at home, it’s a tough train to stop.”