Many college basketball games can be described as games of runs, and certainly Sunday night's battle between Illinois and Wisconsin qualified. But perhaps even more it was a game of droughts.
Both teams went on long scoreless and basket-less stretches. But the one that ended up defining the game was the Illini's more than seven-minute scoring drought in the middle of the second half that allowed the Badgers to go on a 17-0 run that turned a 13-point Illinois lead into a four-point Wisconsin lead. All in all, the Badgers outscored the Illini, 36-14, over the game's final 12 and a half minutes to grab a 69-60 win, Wisconsin's eighth in its last nine games.
Both teams struggled to shoot the ball in the first half, with each side taking turns going ice cold from the field. First it was the Badgers, who went five and a half minutes without a made basket as the Illini built a six-point lead. But then it was Illinois’ turn to go cold, going almost six minutes between scores. Wisconsin took advantage, going on a 12-0 run to turn that six-point deficit into a six-point advantage with five minutes before halftime, but then came another Badgers cold snap, as they scored just one point and made no baskets the rest of the half, allowing the Illini to close the period on a 12-1 run that had them in front by five at the break.
Wisconsin shot an ugly 28.6 percent from the field over the first 20 minutes, going just 1-for-13 from 3-point range. Illinois wasn’t too much better from the field at 36.7 percent, but the Illini did hit six first-half 3s, three coming from Kendrick Nunn, who led all scorers with 12 points at halftime. The Badgers doubled the Illini up in points in the paint and second-chance points, but that cold shooting by the home team kept the visitors in front.
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But the offenses flipped completely in the second half. Illinois continued its run that ended the first half, scoring the first six points of the second half to make it an 18-1 run. Wisconsin's basket-less drought reached eight minutes straddling halftime. A Malcolm Hill bucket at the 12:22 mark of the second half gave the Illini their biggest lead of the game at 13. But that's when the offense dried up for Illinois, which went 0-for-6 from the field, missed a pair of free throws and turned the ball over four times during its seven-minute scoreless stretch. The Badgers got hot at the right time, going 6-for-8 from the field during that stretch to fuel the 17-0 run.
Michael Finke stopped that run with a dunk with about five minutes to play, but Zak Showalter answered immediately with a big 3-pointer to make it a five-point game, as close as the Illini got the rest of the game. Wisconsin went 14-for-16 from the free-throw line from that point to lock up the game.
The Badgers completely reversed their shooting performance from the first half, shooting 68.8 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes. They also went 19-for-25 from the free-throw line in the second half and knocked down four second-half 3-pointers. Wisconsin doubled up Illinois in points in the paint, 24-12, and turned 12 Illini turnovers into 16 points.
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Ethan Happ had a big night for the Badgers, scoring 20 points and grabbing 12 rebounds, posting his eighth double-double of the season. He also came away with six steals. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig — after going a combined 1-for-12 from the field in the first half — finished with a combined 31 points. Wisconsin's five starters accounted for all but two of the team's 69 points.
Hill had 20 to lead the Illini, also grabbing seven rebounds. Nunn, the only other Illinois player in double figures, ended with 15 points.
Wisconsin continues to look deserving of a spot in the NCAA tournament, improving to 17-10 overall and 9-5 in the Big Ten after winning for the eighth time in the last nine games. A very tough test awaits, though, as next up is a Wednesday-night trip to play Iowa.
Illinois, conversely, is barreling toward its third straight season without an NCAA tournament appearance. The loss dropped the Illini to 12-15 overall and just 4-10 in the league. Next up is a tough matchup against Indiana on Thursday.