CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Even in a down season, one thing remained a constant for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
Junior center Ethan Happ scored 27 points and matched a career high with eight assists Thursday night to help the Badgers extend their winning streak over the Fighting Illini to 13 games with a 78-69 victory at the State Farm Center.
It was UW’s first win in nearly three weeks. Sandwiched around a five-game losing streak are two victories over the Illini, who haven’t beaten the Badgers since 2011.
Afterward, Happ was asked if there was a sense of relief in the locker room after UW won for the first time since a 75-50 decision over Illinois at the Kohl Center on Jan. 19.
“Satisfaction,” Happ said. “Just because we’ve been in so many games and lost some tough ones. This wasn’t an easy one by any means. It was down to the wire and we had some guys make some big shots.”
At the top of that list were sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl and freshman guard Brad Davison, who finished with 15 and 14 points, respectively, for the Badgers (11-15, 4-9 Big Ten).
UW needed all hands on deck to overcome a career-high 32 points by Illinois freshman guard Trent Frazier, who had 22 after halftime. Junior forward Leron Black added 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Illini (12-13, 2-10).
“Pretty happy locker room,” UW coach Greg Gard said after his team won for only the second time in 12 games away from home this season. “It’s about time. These guys have worked, it’s not been easy. … They showed a lot of composure. They showed some maturity coming down the stretch.”
Illinois had no answers for Happ, who made his first seven shots of the game and helped UW outscore Illinois 32-16 in the paint.
Happ assisted on five of UW’s eight 3-pointers. Combine his scoring and his assists, and Happ accounted for 46 of UW’s 78 points.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood called Happ “a really good player pretty much just having his way with us. He’s a problem. We don’t have a lot of size and it forces you to kind of pick your poison.”
Pritzl had been in a funk, but he snapped out of it with a solid all-around game. After sitting out the second half during a loss at Maryland on Sunday, Pritzl was on the floor for 28 minutes against Illinois and contributed six rebounds, two assists and two steals off the bench.
“I think the thing that got him going in the first half was he got a couple rebounds, he dove on the floor. He did some of those other things that you always hear me talk about that can get a player engaged,” Gard said. “That helped get him mentally into the game and then, lo and behold, shots go in. Amazing how that works.”
Pritzl scored 13 points after halftime. He had missed 16 consecutive shots over parts of four games until going 3 of 3 – all from beyond the arc – in the second half against the Illini.
“I’ve proven at times I can do it,” Pritzl said. “It’s just a matter of always shooting it confidently.”
Happ, who had 22 of UW’s first 44 points, scored four points during an 8-0 run that gave the Badgers a 60-52 lead with 6 minutes, 29 seconds left.
After a jumper by Black cut Illinois’ deficit to six, Happ assisted on corner 3s from Davison and Pritzl to help UW stretch its lead to 66-56 with 4:47 remaining.
“He’s one of the best players in this league and we look to him,” Davison said of Happ, who also had six rebounds, three blocks and two steals. “He was super aggressive tonight and really finished well around the rim and he also made really good decisions kicking it out. We had a lot of open 3s for him. He draws so much attention. He was huge for us.”
UW was up 68-61 after a pair of free throws by Davison with 3:14 left, but Frazier sandwiched a three-point play and a 3-pointer around a trey by Pritzl to pull the Illini within 71-67 with 2:22 to play.
But Pritzl made two free throws with 1:19 left and two more with 47.1 seconds left to help the Badgers end their skid.
The win improved the Badgers’ chances of avoiding a game on the first day of the Big Ten tournament, which begins later this month in New York. UW is in 10th place, a game above Iowa and Minnesota.
“It’s been a while,” Davison said. “We’ve had a sad locker room after games and in between games just because we’ve had that sour taste in our mouth.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s a lot more fun going in that locker room. Happy coaching staff, happy team. It’s going to be happy couple days and we’re looking forward to Michigan now. Another opportunity.”