MADISON — On Sunday afternoon, Kohl Center had all the makings of a big matchup: a raucous crowd, highlight reels on the jumbotron and the suspense of an intense rivalry.
And then the game began.
Sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson put his finesse moves to good use, bullying his defender in the lane for the game’s first two points. Then Simpson rifled an outlet pass to Charles Matthews for an easy layup — one of six assists on the day for the sophomore. A Duncan Robinson 3-pointer followed for a 7-0 lead 2:28 into the contest.
It would be that kind of game for the No. 20 Michigan men’s basketball team — it was bigger and better than Wisconsin and could score points any way it wanted. The Wolverines (9-5 Big Ten, 20-7 overall) nearly surrendered their 23-point lead when their offense relaxed, but they made the necessary stops to get a reprieve from a recent offensive slump to trample the underperforming Badgers (4-10, 11-16), 83-72. It was just coach John Beilein’s second win in Madison in his 11-year tenure.
“Our defense in the first half was very, very good. Second half, not as good,” Beilein said. “(Defense is) tough to play with that type of lead. We’ve been in this building before and we got up, then they made a run and we did not execute down the stretch and melted a little bit. These guys would not go away tonight.”
After the first seven points, Michigan hit the gas pedal even harder. In a fluid 2:02 sequence, the Wolverines recovered from a broken offensive set to convert an alley-oop for Moritz Wagner, then proceeded to knock down three consecutive deep balls.
Two of them came off the hands of Robinson, who entered the starting lineup due to an ankle injury to freshman forward Isaiah Livers. The fifth-year senior was removed as a starter on Jan. 13 against Michigan State, and he welcomed the return with 16 points, hitting his first four threes in the process.
And for the first time this season — partially a byproduct of Livers’ absence — Wagner and sophomore center Jon Teske saw the floor together for the first time all year. The added height was also a measure to contain Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, the Badgers’ lone source of scoring with 29 points.
“A scary few minutes right there, we’ve got this guy chasing guys around the perimeter,” Beilein joked, pointing at Wagner beside him. “They really did good (and) you could see it more. They understand that there are some teams — and this team is one — where it’s a good matchup for us.
“The whole idea today was “How are we going to keep ‘Happ from getting 40?’ and I don’t think we did a great job with that. … When we lost Isaiah Livers we knew that (Wagner) might have to play some ‘4’ and now he’s not getting more rest.”
It was a mish-mash of new lineups and unusual scenes in the first 20 minutes, but it amounted to a lights-out 17-for-26 from the field and a 44-22 halftime lead.
In the second half, the onslaught continued. While Happ continued to work Michigan’s frontcourt, Wagner responded in kind with seven of the Wolverines’ first 11 points, including an off-balance, shot clock-beating trey as part of his 20-point, 11-board double-double.
But with 11:46 remaining up 21, a repressed memory of blowing a 20-point lead at Ohio State resurfaced. Happ and teammate Nate Reuvers went on a 10-0 run by themselves, before a layup by senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman quieted a restless crowd. Wisconsin scored again, then Abdur-Rahkman dished a no-look pass to Wagner for a dunk. And then it happened once more, this time a step-back dagger by the senior. Michigan’s lead would never sink below seven for the rest of the game.
Wisconsin tried to continue its comeback efforts with a “hack-a-Simpson” strategy, intentionally fouling the point guard with 3:08 remaining. While it worked twice, as he missed the front ends of two one-and-ones, the Badgers couldn’t capitalize before he was substituted out.
“All programs in the Big Ten are really good programs so we know they’re gonna make a run late,” Robinson said. “Teams aren’t just gonna wilt away. We’ve got to do a little bit better job in a couple areas, not fouling 3-point shooters and stuff like that. You get experience through games like this. Fortunately, we were able to get a win in this one, but we’ve gotta continue to tighten up our free throw shooting and staying connected on defense in those type of situations.”
Sunday’s game may have had all the reverie of a high-stakes contest — a prolific shooting display, a valiant comeback and rightful winner. But it was truly Michigan’s game from the start, and it took care of business exactly as it needed to to keep its NCAA Tournament aspirations alive.