CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Its cuts through the paint were much crisper and its post moves were much stronger.
Those major upgrades by the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team resulted in a rewarding Sunday afternoon at the free throw line for the Badgers, who completed a regular-season sweep of Illinois with a 74-68 victory over the Fighting Illini in a Big Ten Conference game at Assembly Hall.
Junior guard Ben Brust had 20 points and sophomore center Frank Kaminsky added a career-high 19 off the bench for UW, which led by as many as 15 points in the second half en route to its fifth consecutive victory over Illinois.
Five days after not attempting any free throws in a loss at Ohio State — that had never happened in Bo Ryan’s 11-plus seasons leading the Badgers — UW got there 42 times against the Illini, the most by any Big Ten team this season in league play.
The Badgers converted 28 of those opportunities, with Kaminsky’s 12-for-14 performance leading the way.
“We shot 42 free throws?” said Kaminsky, who was assured that, yes, the Badgers really made that many trips to the line. “We took it at them and we made a lot of hard cuts on offense. That’s what Coach talked about — make them actually play defense — and they were fouling us. I’m kind of surprised it was that many, but when you look back at the game we deserved those.”
Senior forward Ryan Evans got to the line 11 times. And though he only made five of those attempts, Evans finished with 15 points and a team-high nine rebounds to help UW stay within reach of the Big Ten’s front-runners at the midway point of league play.
The victory puts the Badgers (15-7, 6-3 Big Ten) two games behind first-place Indiana and one game out of a three-way tie for second between Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.
UW was in the bonus the final 5 minutes, 38 seconds of the first half and the final 9:20 of the second half. Asked what the Badgers did to draw so many fouls, Evans said he and his teammates were “just more aggressive.”
“We’re looking in the post, and when we’re getting it (in there) we’re being more aggressive,” Evans added. “That’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve just got to keep on coming.”
Of course, it helped that Illinois’ post defense, unlike Ohio State’s, was atrocious. Among the things that disappointed Illini coach John Groce was his team’s shoddy back-side help on lobs inside to UW’s post players.
“In this league, you’ve got to guard,” Groce said after the Illini (15-8, 2-7) lost for the sixth time in their past seven games. “Our defense has too many holes in it.”
Still, it was an encouraging outing on several fronts for UW.
Brust, who hadn’t reached double figures or attempted a free throw since the Big Ten opener against Penn State on Jan. 3, was 7-for-11 from the field and 4-for-6 from the line.
“I just kind of (took) what was given to me,” Brust said, “and just kind of played off of that.”
Kaminsky, who was averaging 1.8 points in league play entering the day, had 13 points in the second half alone. It was just his second game back in the lineup after missing three games with a left eye injury.
“That was huge,” Evans said. “We know Frank can be a real asset for us, so to get him going at this point of the season is a great thing. Same with Ben.”
Brust scored six points during a 10-2 run at the end of the first half that helped the Badgers build a 33-24 halftime lead.
Groce was whistled for a technical foul as both teams headed to the locker room, giving the Badgers a chance to extend its lead to double digits before any time elapsed in the second half.
But Brust missed both free throws and UW came up empty on its first four possessions of the second half.
Illinois cut its deficit to 35-30 and had a chance to pull closer, but sophomore Mike Shaw missed a dunk. Brust hit a 3-pointer coming out of a media timeout to start an 8-0 run that included a 3-pointer from Kaminsky and gave UW a 13-point cushion.
“I think we did a good job of weathering the storm there,” Brust said.
Junior guard Joseph Bertrand scored 15 of his team-high 17 points in the second half for Illinois, but UW shot 55.6 percent after the break and went 11-for-16 from the line in the final 1:59 to hold off the Illini.
UW, which had gone three consecutive games without reaching 50 points, topped that mark Sunday with 10:16 still remaining in the game. Moreover, UW got a combined 54 points from Brust, Kaminsky and Evans, none of whom had scored more than 13 points in a Big Ten game this season.
“That’s the nice thing about our team,” Evans said. “You can’t predict what’s going to happen out there when it comes to the offensive end. So that’s what’s going to make us effective down the stretch.”