Author: Avery Steinberg
The Wisconsin Badgers (23-5, 14-4) went into New Jersey on Saturday and beat the Rutgers Scarlet Knights team (16-12, 10-8) in a revenge game 66-61. After being picked to finish 10th in the conference by the media in the Big Ten preseason poll the Badgers now stand alone atop the Big Ten standings with only two games to go.
Coming into Saturday's game, Rutgers was 31-3 at home over the past three years in games which fans had been allowed to attend. Jersey Mike's Arena, formerly the RAC, is truly one of the most unique and special venues in all of college basketball; a true home-court advantage.
A Big Matchup
The atmosphere for Saturday's game was electric as expected and caused communication issues for the Badgers all afternoon. Despite the crowd, All-American candidate Johnny Davis and company were able to rally and pick up the crucial road victory, pushing the Badgers to an outstanding 8-2 road record in Big Ten play.
Wisconsin came out of the gates hot and looked like a team determined for revenge after falling at home to Rutgers last weekend. A Tyler Wahl three-pointer on the Badgers' opening possession set the tone for the first half; a half in which the Badgers never trailed.
The story of the half, surprisingly, was not Davis. Davis was hounded all game by Rutgers star defender Caleb McConnell who is widely regarded as one of the top defenders in the country. Davis finished the half with just four points on 2-9 shooting, while also sitting out the final four minutes due to foul trouble.
Rather, it was Brad Davison and Chucky Hepburn who carried the load offensively for Wisconsin, finishing the half with 11 and 10 points respectively.
Collectively, Rutgers struggled to find any true rhythm offensively throughout the majority of the first half, finishing just 9-24 from the field and 0-6 from beyond the arc. Typically trustworthy playmakers Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker could not find any consistency on offense, entering the break with a combined 10 points on 4-11 shooting from the field.
Entering the break, Wisconsin held a nine-point lead by the score of 33-24.
Following the halftime break, stars for each team began to pick up the slack. Most notably Baker and Davis. Baker came out scorching hot, scoring eight of Rutgers's first 10 second-half points. Wisconsin's nine-point halftime cushion was surely but steadily chipped away. By the under 12 Tv timeout the game was tied at 42, and from that point onward a back and forth battle would rage.
A quick spurt by Wisconsin from back-to-back Davis and Davison long balls pushed their lead to 50-44, but was quickly followed by a 7-0 Rutgers run capped by a Baker free-throw line jumper to give the Scarlet Knights their first lead of the game with 7:28 remaining.
A big-time three-pointer by Badger center Steven Crowl put an end to the Rutgers run, and then freshman guard Hepburn hit the shot of the game with an extremely deep three-pointer to push the Badger lead to 59-55 with 4:46 remaining. The Badgers would never give up that lead. Some clutch free-throw shooting by Davis down the stretch sealed the five-point victory for the Badgers.
Some notable performances for the Badgers include Davis who finished the game with 19 points and eight rebounds due to his spectacular second half. Badger super senior Davison seemed to break out of his shooting skid, finishing the game with 14 points on 4-8 shooting from deep. Not to be remiss, Badger's starters Wahl and Hepburn finished with fantastic performances of their own, racking up 11 and 13 points respectively.
For Rutgers, Baker, who also got hot in the second half, finished with 19 points as well. Rutgers big man Harper Jr. turned in a fantastic scorecard as well finishing with 15 points and 5 rebounds.
A Look Ahead
The loss eliminates Rutgers from the possibility of finishing the regular season as Big Ten champs and pushes them all the way down to eighth place in the conference with a record of 10-8. More importantly, the loss greatly reduces the chances of the Scarlet Knights making the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. The Scarlet Knights entered today as one of Joe Lunardi's “last four byes,” meaning the loss pushes them even closer to the wrong side of the bubble. With just two games remaining, the Scarlet Knights need to take care of business on Wednesday night against the Indiana Hoosiers who are also fighting for their tournament lives. Rutgers then proceeds to finish off the regular season at home against the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday.
With the victory, Wisconsin pushed its record to 23-5 overall, the best start to a season in the Greg Gard era. As a lock for the tournament, the focus turns towards seeding as the Badgers came into today slated as a three seed according to most bracketologists. However, on a day of chaos across college basketball with seven top 10 teams losing, the most on a single day in history, the Badgers seem destined to make a jump to the 2-line in most brackets. Additionally, a loss by the Purdue Boilermakers earlier in the day moves Wisconsin into sole possession of first place in the conference. The Badgers are guaranteed at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title if they win one of their two remaining games, both at home against Purdue and the Nebraska Cornhuskers. A victory in both would give the Badgers an outright Big Ten regular-season title. The Badgers continue their magical season with a monumental game on Tuesday night against Purdue.