Sunday, January 5, 2014

Wisconsin struggles in first half, pulls past Iowa in second after McCaffery ejection

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Wisconsin 75, Iowa 71

One more win would give the No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers their best start in program history (15-0); however, the visiting No. 22 Iowa Hawkeyes posed UW's toughest test yet.

The Hawkeyes, who many --myself included-- have been predicting big things for these last couple of seasons, seem to have finally hit their stride. The Hawkeyes entered tonight's game with a 12-2 (1-0) record, with an overtime loss to Villanova and a 3-point loss at the Hilton Coliseum in Ames the only black marks on their record to date.

Combine Iowa's desire to push the pace and UW's seemingly newfound ability to do so this season and you had all the makings for an up-tempo, decidedly un-B1G game.

The Hawkeyes gave UW problems early with their size, allowing them to jump out to a 9-3 lead, partially helped out by rebounding four of their first five misses of the night.

The Iowa lead ballooned to 15-4, as Iowa had no answer for Iowa on the boards or in transition. Tell me if you've heard this before, but UW's best chance at winning this one seemed to be slowing things down and winning it halfcourt possession by halfcourt possession.

The Badgers started the game 3-of-16 from the field, with Frank Kaminsky converting all three makes. Somehow, UW trailed by just seven after a frigid start from the field.

Things heated up quickly for the Badgers, who rattled off a 13-4 run to pull within two, powered mostly by two triples from Kaminsky and one from Josh Gasser. With a little dribble penetration, the Badgers started to find some open looks. Even so, the Badgers would have to tighten things up on the defensive end, starting with the defensive boards, where the Hawkeyes absolutely demolished them in the opening 20 minutes for an offensive rebounding percentage of 61 percent.

Then again, a combined start of 0-of-9 from the field from Sam Dekker and Ben Brust couldn't continue either if UW planned on walking out into the Madison chill with a victory.

For the first time this season, the Badgers were thoroughly outclassed through an entire half of basketball.

Iowa carried a 35-24 lead into the break, not to mention the confidence that comes with knowing you can play with a top 5 team in their building. The Hawkeyes took UW to two overtimes last season in Madison: Could they actually steal the win this time around?

Naturally, you'd expect the Badgers to put up a fight at home, especially after such a poor first half. With his second three of the half, Brust pulled the Badgers within five at the 16:03 mark.

Foul trouble was already an issue for both teams, as Adam Woodbury and Melsahn Basabe had three fouls for Iowa, while Gasser, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig had three apiece for the Badgers early in the second half.

Brust pitched in a mid-range jumper to cut the Iowa lead to 41-39. Now, the Badgers just needed Dekker, who had just one point well into the second half, to get going.

The game took a strange turn around the 12-minute media timeout. During that time, Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery, somehow, picked up two technical fouls and an ejection. With Nigel Hayes heading to the line for a pair of free throws anyway, Brust stepped to the line for four technical foul shots.

Hayes split, but Brust hit all four, giving the Badgers a 44-41 lead, their first lead of the game. Through the first 9:36 of the second half, UW outscored the Hawkeyes, 22-6.

Six straight Aaron White points kept the Hawkeyes in the game, even after it seemed ready to slip away following McCaffery's ejection. Then, a long two from point guard Traevon Jackson and a triple by Duje Dukan after a nice drive and dish by Brust extended the UW lead to eight points with 7:39 to play.

Iowa slowly chipped away at the lead; a Roy Devyn Marble try in transition cut the UW lead to one, 64-63, with 2:43 to play. Unluckily for Iowa, Dekker decided to hit his first shot of the game, a three from the corner.

With just over a minute to play, Mike Gesell couldn't connect from beyond the arc, allowing Traevon Jackson to push the pace and hit Dekker at the other end for a traditional three-point play.

Following the requisite foul-a-thon, the Badgers emerged with a xx-xx victory. Although much of the focus will inevitably settle on McCaffery's ejection, UW would not have won this game without a sterling second half from start to finish.

Despite Kaminsky and Dekker shooting a combined 5-of-20 from the field, the Badgers made the plays they needed to at both ends of the floor, as they are wont to do at the Kohl Center. The 2013-14 Badgers can hit you from any number of spots; talented newcomers like Nigel Hayes and even Duje Dukan and Bronson Koenig provide valuable shot-making ability off of the bench.

As for Iowa, this loss will sting for the simple fact that it was there for them to take. Regardless, this is an Iowa squad that is definitely headed for the tournament this time around, and, so far, easily looks to be a top 4 team in the conference.

But, on this cold night in early January, moral victories yield no warmth. 

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