MADISON – Entering Tuesday, John Beilein had coached 17 games against Wisconsin in his career. He had won just two of those contests, with each loss adding to the mounting frustrations of the last.
“Two games,” Beilein said, expressing his frustration. “Two great wins, though, those games were great, freaking wins. There was a whole bunch of close ones. …They’re just really good. They’ve had better teams than us, and they have tremendous coaches.”
With Tuesday’s game knotted at 43 points, junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson each hit 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to extend the Michigan lead back to six. The Wolverines regained momentum after the Badgers erased an eight-point lead and silenced the rowdy Kohl Center crowd.
An away win against a top-25 conference opponent, a .500 Big Ten record and massive résumé-boosting win were all within reach.
But Wisconsin responded with a 15-0 run, led by one of its senior leaders, Bronson Koenig, leaving Beilein and the Wolverines baffled again. The Badgers were able to maintain the lead from there despite Michigan closing within two points, and Beilein once again leaves the Kohl Center with a loss, 68-64.
“Being on the road, we knew. Wisconsin being a great team, we knew they were going to make a run,” said senior guard Zak Irvin. “They made a run in the second half, and we made ours. We were going back and forth. Just late, when (Beilein) said they made some shots we weren’t able to. They (just) got a couple breaks.”
What will bewilder Beilein the most following this most recent unraveling against the Badgers is the way the Wolverines got in trouble to begin with – by fouling.
“It’s all confusing. Confusing,” Beilein said. “We lead the country in not fouling. It was confusing what happened, so we’ll just let it go.”
Michigan entered Tuesday’s contest leading the nation in fewest fouls committed per game. With 14:26 to go in the second half, the Wolverines put the Badgers in the bonus. Minutes later, redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson and sophomore forward Moritz Wagner each picked up their fourth fouls, leaving Michigan searching for options on the bench.
Without their starting big men, the Wolverines couldn’t maintain their established lead off the 11-0 run they had opened the second half with.
After shooting 0-for-3 from the field in the first half and looking visibly frustrated with himself, Wagner came out of halftime looking like a different player. He helped erase a five-point halftime deficit, and boosted Michigan’s offense after an uncharacteristic low-scoring half.
Despite the struggles offensively in the first half, the Wolverines looked like a completely different team defensively in the first half compared to their prior five conference games. Michigan held the Badgers to just 26 points in the first half, forcing them into shooting 38 percent from the field and 22 percent from behind the arc.
Wilson and Wagner led that defensive effort by making their physical presence known down low. Wilson blocked two shots in the first half, and both were doing well to control difficult matchups guarding two of Wisconsin’s leading scorers – Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes.
“I thought as a group we played really well defensively, especially in the first half,” Irvin said. “We knew in order to put ourselves in position to win tonight we had to play well defensively and I thought we did that.”
But that aggression boiled over in the opening minutes of the second half. Wilson picked up his third and fourth fouls on two consecutive possessions with 12 minutes to go. Wagner played victim to his bad habits, picking up unnecessary fouls going for rebounds, and was benched with his fourth foul shortly after Wilson.
“We’ve got to find a way to be physical without fouling, especially in the second half,” Wagner said. “I think there was a four-minute battle where we just gave up too many easy foul calls in the post and rebounds and stuff like that.”
The Wolverines only had Irvin to rely on for consistency throughout the game. Scoring 20 points on the night, Irvin made an impact early and played a key role in Michigan steadying the ship after massive Wisconsin runs. Irvin scored the Wolverines’ first six points, extended Michigan’s leads in the second half and came up with scores in tight situations down the stretch.
But down the stretch, Koenig and the Badgers put together the most dominant run of the night, and that was enough for Wisconsin to defend its own court.
Beilein once again leaves Madison scratching his head, as a win over the Badgers seems as elusive as ever despite the game being one of the Wolverines’ most complete performances of the season.