George Marshall stepped to the free throw line with 3.5 seconds remaining Tuesday night at the Kohl Center, and what occurred next was somewhat predictable if you follow the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
The redshirt freshman point guard missed the first one. After two timeouts, he missed the rim entirely while trying to intentionally miss the second attempt.
It’s been that kind of season from the line for coach Bo Ryan’s team, and the Badgers’ wayward shooting cost them dearly late in a 49-47 loss to No. 13 Michigan State in a tightly contested Big Ten Conference game.
Junior guard Keith Appling had 19 points and sophomore swingman Branden Dawson added 18 points and 13 rebounds for the first-place Spartans (17-3, 6-1 Big Ten), who survived what Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called a “tough, tough game” in which his team’s biggest lead was four points.
It was a tough defeat for the Badgers (13-6, 4-2) to swallow because they shot 29.6 percent overall and from 3-point range, and an abysmal 38.9 from the line, including five consecutive misses over the final 5 minutes, 23 seconds.
“We’ve got to get in the gym and just start knocking them down,” said UW senior forward Mike Bruesewitz, who led the Badgers with 10 points. “Plain and simple, it can’t be an excuse anymore.”
The Badgers, who shot 81.8 percent from the free throw line two seasons ago and 73.9 percent a year ago, are shooting a head-scratching 52.1 percent from the line (50-for-96) in Big Ten play.
That dropoff — UW is at 61.1 percent from the line for the season — is something Ryan has a difficult time explaining.
“I can’t shoot ’em,” he said after UW lost to Michigan State for the fourth consecutive time. “It’s a craft. You get good at something. And we’ve got guys who are pretty good free throw shooters who aren’t making free throws.”
Ryan says he’s been happy with UW’s free throw shooting during practice, but those results haven’t carried over to the games for the most part.
“Still nothing like the game,” Ryan said. “It’s always easy for people on the outside looking in with free throws, until you’ve been there. And it’s something about what you’ve got inside, physically and mentally.”
Even with its free throw struggles, UW had a chance to win the game thanks to a 3-pointer from an unlikely source. It came from senior forward Ryan Evans, who was 1-for-11 from the field to that point and 1-for-19 from beyond the arc on the season, with 16.7 seconds remaining to cut the Spartans’ lead to 48-47.
Freshman guard Gary Harris made a free throw to give Michigan State a two-point lead with 15.3 seconds left but missed the second attempt, giving UW a chance to send the game to overtime or win it in regulation.
Ryan instructed Marshall to drive to the rim and get a shot on his own or find an open teammate. Marshall drew a foul and headed to the line to shoot two free throws.
He had made nine of his 12 attempts this season but was long on the first attempt. After a timeout in which he was instructed to miss the second attempt in hopes UW could grab the offensive rebound and score before time ran out, Marshall’s second attempt was wide left and failed to hit the rim.
“Well, we were going to miss the second one and maybe I have to clarify: ‘George, we’re going to miss it, but you can’t miss the rim. I think maybe I needed to say that,’ ” Ryan said. “You catch the edge of the basket — everybody knows that on a missed free throw — and he just missed the edge of the basket, because then it’s up for grabs.”
Bruesewitz and senior forward Jared Berggren refused to pin the blame on Marshall for the key miss on the first attempt because there was plenty of blame to go around.
Berggren, a 75.9-percent foul shooter entering the game, took a lot of it on his shoulders after going 2-for-8 from the line.
UW made just one field goal in the last 7:41 — a span of 11 possessions — and it was Evans’ unlikely 3-pointer.
The Badgers’ only other point during that span was a free throw by sophomore guard Traevon Jackson. It was UW’s only made free throw in its final seven attempts.
Berggren missed the front end of a bonus with 5:23 left and then missed two more free throws on the next possession after Appling’s foul prevented a dunk.
“To come away empty on that possession definitely hurt us, especially when we were struggling to score,” said Berggren, who finished with nine points and failed to reach double figures for the third consecutive game. “I’ve got to be stronger with that and just go through the contact and be able to finish that.
“Since I didn’t do that, I’ve got to step up and knock down the free throws and, again, I didn’t do that. It hurts the team and especially in a game like this when we’re struggling to score down the stretch. … To get easy points like that and leave those on the board is frustrating.”
UW overcame its poor shooting with solid defense. Michigan State didn’t have a field goal over the final 6:54 and scored just two points during that stretch.
“I thought defensively we were working our butts off,” Ryan said. “That’s a good scoring team.”
Ryan’s only complaint defensively was that Jackson fouled Appling three times on jump shots, leading to nine points that included a four-point play and a three-point play.
“That might be more fouling a jump shooter than we get in a season, in one game,” Ryan said. “So we did not do a very good job of that. And Appling took advantage of it.”
Izzo said afterward that he thought the Badgers and Spartans were even teams.
That’s probably true, except in one key area Tuesday night: The Spartans were 9-for-12 from the foul line.
“I’m just proud of my guys,” Izzo said. “It wasn’t pretty, but you play a team like this, it’s not going to be. To get a win here was a big win for us.”