That the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team needed big plays from Ethan Happ in the second half Wednesday night says a lot about the state of the Badgers right now.
Happ helped UW avoid what would have been an embarrassing defeat by producing 18 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in an 82-70 victory over Chicago State at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers (7-7) extended their winning streak to three games and got back to .500 for the first time in a month, but they had to work for it against one of the worst teams in the nation.
UW was a 30½-point favorite against the Cougars, whose only two victories this season came against NAIA opponents.
In its previous three games against Big Ten teams, Chicago State (2-14) lost by 33 points to Iowa, by 69 points to Purdue and by 65 points to Northwestern.
That trend didn’t continue against the Badgers. The Cougars were within single digits midway through the second half and, as UW coach Greg Gard noted afterward, “were able to keep everybody on the edge of their seats.”
Happ led five players in double figures. UW got 17 points from junior forward Khalil Iverson, 15 from freshman guard Brad Davison, 13 from redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford and 1 from sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl.
Offense wasn’t the issue for the Badgers. It was their atrocious display on the other end of the court in the second half that allowed the Cougars to make things interesting.
“It’s lapses,” Happ said. “We’re good for stretches and then one mistake turns into another one and then they go on runs. That’s just something that if we’re going to beat good teams, that can’t happen.”
Senior forward Deionte Simmons finished with a game-high 19 points for Chicago State, while junior guard Fred Sims Jr. added 16.
The Cougars came into the game ranked 342nd nationally out of 351 teams in adjusted offensive efficiency, but they torched UW for 28 points in 17 possessions to start the second half.
The Badgers were struggling in ball-screen situations – a common theme this season – and allowing Simmons to catch the ball too deep in the post.
What was going through Happ’s mind after a 9-0 run by the Cougars cut UW’s lead to 57-48 with 10 minutes, 17 seconds to play?
“That we’ve got to lock in defensively,” he said. “That’s what it was. We weren’t having any problems with offense. It was just we were making some mistakes defensively and we’ve got to be better.”
Happ picked up his play down the stretch, producing six points and four assists over the final 9:58. After Chicago State cut its deficit to single digits, Happ answered with a three-point play to restore UW’s double-digit cushion.
The Badgers’ lead never slipped below 10 points the rest of the way.
Davison played 33 minutes despite leaving the game twice after re-injuring his left shoulder. He was hurt 90 seconds into the game but returned to score 11 points in the first half.
After hurting it again with 5:14 to play in the game, Davison went to the locker room but was back in at the 4:38 mark.
“He’s a tough competitor,” Gard said. “One of the toughest I’ve ever been around.”
UW, already thin in the backcourt after injuries to D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King, could ill afford to lose Davison.
But that’s just one issue facing the Badgers, who don’t seem to be improving as they get closer to Big Ten play starting up again in less than a week.
“We haven’t become complete yet in terms of putting 40 solid minutes together,” Gard said. “We’ve shown flashes here and there, but we’ve got to become more consistent in a lot of areas.
“Our margin for error is slim. We’re obviously down a couple bodies and we’re working through some things. We can’t afford to have slippage in areas that we’re trying to improve.”