STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It was quite a stretch of 48 hours for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
Two days after an embarrassing loss at home, the Badgers nearly had to deal with what would have been a devastating defeat on the road.
It’s no wonder UW coach Greg Gard and his players let out a huge sigh of relief Monday night after escaping with a 64-63 victory over Penn State at the Bryce Jordan Center.
If there’s such a thing as a must-win game in early December, this one qualifies, especially when you consider how hard it would have been for UW to pick itself up the floor after a monumental collapse down the stretch.
“Oh, yeah, we needed this one bad,” sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice said after UW’s first win away from home this season. “I think this team really, really needed this.”
Junior forward Khalil Iverson scored a team-high 16 points to help the Badgers avoid an 0-2 start in Big Ten play. Freshman Nate Reuvers added 11 points as UW extended its winning streak over Penn State to 10 games.
The Badgers (4-5, 1-1 Big Ten) led by as many as 17 points in the second half and were up by 14 with under 5 minutes to play, but they got sloppy and had to hold on for dear life after the Nittany Lions pulled to within one point three times in the final minute.
In the end, UW made just enough plays to survive. Winning a close game was a big step for a young team that failed to do so in losses to Xavier, Baylor and UCLA earlier this season.
“It’s tough getting a Big Ten win on the road,” Reuvers said, “so any way you can do it is good.”
Even considering UW’s dominance in this series — it has now won 23 of the last 25 meetings — this was a surprising result considering how the teams were trending coming into the game. While the Badgers were reeling following a 25-point home loss to Ohio State on Saturday, the Nittany Lions were feeling good about themselves following a win at Iowa.
But the loss to the Buckeyes — UW’s most lopsided defeat ever at the Kohl Center — provided a gut-check of sorts for the Badgers.
“We kind of just flushed out Saturday,” Trice said. “That wasn’t how we play. It wasn’t Wisconsin basketball and we didn’t have any energy and we just focused on coming out and competing really, really hard from the beginning.”
It showed. For 35 minutes, the Badgers played inspired on both ends of the court. It was a completely different team on both ends than the one that showed up Saturday in Madison.
UW shared the ball and took good shots on the offensive end. They were even more impressive on defense, making life difficult on Penn State’s two leading scorers.
Nittany Lions sophomore guard Tony Carr finished with 16 points, but he missed 17 of his 22 shot attempts from the field. Sophomore forward Lamar Stevens, meanwhile, finished with just four points on 1-of-7 shooting.
Sophomore center Mike Watkins had a monster game for Penn State (7-3, 1-1), finishing with 22 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots. But limiting Carr and Watkins to a combined 20 points — they were averaging 20.6 and 15.2, respectively — was a huge response from a defense that looked awful two days earlier against Ohio State.
“Our identity is on defense and Saturday we clearly didn’t have that at all,” Iverson said. “Today, I think we came out aggressive on both ends and it led to us having a good game — except for the last five minutes.”
After Reuvers scored in the paint to give UW a 57-43 lead with 4:53 remaining, senior guard Shep Garner scored seven points to spark a 16-3 run by Penn State.
A few self-described “boneheaded” plays by Trice led to him getting benched with 65 seconds remaining. But he returned to the floor after freshman guard Brad Davison followed a turnover by fouling out of the game.
“It looked like it was snowballing on him a little bit,” Gard said of Trice. “He just needed to get out and calm down and re-evaluate.”
A pair of free throws by Garner cut UW’s lead to 60-59 with 43.5 seconds remaining, but Trice made four free throws in the final minute to help hold off the Nittany Lions.
Carr made two free throws to pull the Nittany Lions within one point with 14.7 seconds remaining, and they had a chance to pull ahead after UW redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford missed the front end of a bonus situation.
But Carr missed a 3-pointer from the right wing, and Ford hustled to secure a jump ball that gave UW possession with 0.6 seconds remaining. The Badgers inbounded the ball, the buzzer sounded and they finally could exhale.
“Just proud of our guys,” Gard said. “We battled. It hasn’t been an easy 48 hours after our home game on Saturday, but it’s nice to see a bounce-back and look more like a Wisconsin team should look.”
According to UW junior center Ethan Happ, who had nine points and 10 rebounds before fouling out, the quick turnaround after the loss to Ohio State was exactly what the Badgers needed to get an awful taste out of their mouths.
“It sucked to sit there and think about it,” Happ said, “but at the same time I think we came out and played so hard because of the way we played on Saturday.”