Who are the Wisconsin Badgers under Greg Gard? If the Badgersâ€™ Big Ten opener is any indication, they are fighters. Gardâ€™s Badgers (8-6, 0-1) fought to the bitter end, before poor shooting and foul trouble did in the home team in a 61-55 loss to the No. 14 Purdue Boilermakers (13-1, 1-0).
The loss was Wisconsinâ€™s first in a Big Ten opener in the last 13 years and the first Big Ten home opening loss since a 2011 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Purdue came in with two 7-footers for Wisconsin to contend with, and the Badgers were able to do so against one, but not both. AJ Hammons came off the bench to pour in a game-high 24 points for the Boilers.
However, even his performance wasnâ€™t nearly enough as the Badgers fought through multiple scoring droughts and foul trouble for many starters to still be in a position to steal this game.
Down 48-37 with 5:37 to play, the Badgers offense sprung to life thanks to true freshman Alex Illikainen going off for eight of his career high 10 points. His play sparked a 10-4 run to bring the game to within three at 52-49 with 1:40 to play.
A pair of threes from an unlikely source â€” Dakota Mathias â€” did in the faint hopes for a full UW comeback though.
The first half was an early indication that Wisconsin was up to taking on the challenge of Big Ten basketball, especially a team coming in with a 12-1 record and the lofty ranking of the Boilermakers. However, it also gave an indication there was plenty to work on as the Big Ten season goes on.
After going down early in the first half, Wisconsin fought to stay within a possession or two while they gathered themselves on offense.
Once the Badgers offense exploded, it exploded in big spurts. There was a 9-0 run that put the Badgers in the lead and then an extension of the run to a 13-2 situation that saw Wisconsin up by two possessions late in the first half.
#Badgers on a 13-2 run over the last 7:37, lead Purdue 24-18 with 1:49 left.
— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) December 30, 2015
UW was able to turn a 14-11 deficit in to a lead thanks in large part to the ability to keep the twin towers of AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas off the block and make the rest of the Boilers take jump shots. Hammons was able to pour in a half-leading nine points , but he was forced to work for those shots and had to get them on nine field goal attempts as well.
Those twin towers were also in early foul trouble, combining for three fouls in the first half. It led the Boilermakers to have to turn to other sources of getting baskets and it meant a lot of pressure in the half court from the Badgers.
That pressure turned in to 11 turnovers against Purdue, with the Badgers turning those extra possessions in to nine points. Wisconsin also was equal to Purdue on the boards (18-18), but were able to take advantage of the times Hammons and Haas werenâ€™t there, grabbing six offensive boards.
It all added up to a defensive effort that paid off in big ways, as the Badgers held Purdue scoreless for a 4-minute, 30-second spell and forced six turnovers in the final 10 minutes of the first half. Purdue shot 40 percent for the half, but took just 25 field goal attempts compared to 31 attempts for the Badgers.
Wisconsinâ€™s offense wasnâ€™t as great, shooting just 32 percent from the field. However, the volume of shots and ability to get to the line made up the difference.
The only bad point for UWâ€™s defensive effort came in the final minutes as it allowed Purdue to climb back in to the game. Down 24-18 with 3:23 to play, Purdue went on a 6-0 run the rest of the way to take it in to the half tied up.
Hayes, had nine of his team-high 17 points in the first half, to go along with four rebounds to lead the Badgers in to intermission.
Wisconsin came out shooting much better early in the second half, but it was only good enough to keep pace and not take advantage of Purdue. Instead, foul trouble began to rack up and Hammons simply took over, scoring 15 points in the second stanza.
He shot 5 of 6 from the field and added five more from the free-throw line to go with five rebounds as well.
As much as Hammonsâ€™ effort was important, the Badgers were still able to climb back in thanks to defensive effort and the clutch shooting of bench contributors like Illikainen.
Mathaisâ€™ two three pointers following the Badgersâ€™ effort to get the game to 52-49 were direct answers to bench contributors and the only two shots the sophomore took all game long. Following Illikainenâ€™s made jumper, Mathiasâ€™ stopped the Badgers run with a triple.
He did it again in response to reserve guard Jordan Hill driving to the basket for the lay-in and a 55-51 scoreline â€” pushing it to a three possession lead with just 34 seconds to play.
Those two individual efforts were the difference down the stretch, as Wisconsin couldnâ€™t come up with a quick basket to make a game of it.
Instead, the Badgers were in desperation mode and it was too little, too late.
Wisconsin will try for its first Big Ten victory of the season as it welcomes Rutgers to the Kohl Center on Jan. 2 at 1p.m. CT. BTN will have television coverage of this contest.