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Ethan Happ turns in masterful performance as Badgers hand No. 2 Wolverines first loss of season with 64-54 upset

January 20, 2019

A pair of home losses earlier this month may still come back to haunt the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, either in terms of where it finishes in the Big Ten pecking order or its NCAA tournament seeding.

For one day, at least, all was right at the Kohl Center, where Ethan Happ and Co. used those previous defeats as motivation rather than dwell on them.

Happ was great down the stretch in a 26-point, 10-rebound, 7-assist masterpiece that helped the Badgers upset No. 2 Michigan 64-54 on Saturday afternoon.

The victory ended a two-game losing skid and righted the ship, at least momentarily, for the Badgers (12-6, 4-3 Big Ten). They’d dropped three conference games in a span of 11 days, with losses to Minnesota and Purdue the most difficult to swallow during that stretch because of UW’s failure to hold serve on its home court.

“That’s kind of how we felt in the locker room going into this game is if we executed better down the stretch in the three losses we had, then we’d be sitting at 6-0 (entering the game) rather than 3-3,” Happ said. “So that was kind of the mentality we came in with.”

UW finished with a bang, outscoring the previously unbeaten Wolverines 7-0 over the final 51.2 seconds. Happ had three points and an assist during that closing burst to help the Badgers improve to 6-2 over top-five teams at the Kohl Center over the past 10 seasons.

The announced crowd of 17,287 did its part, creating an electric buzz throughout the game. Michigan coach John Beilein called it a “great college atmosphere” and Happ noted there was “a little more juice in the stands today.”

Of course, the home team finally gave the fans plenty of ammunition.

While Happ was the main source of offense, as usual, five Badgers scored between six and nine points. Sophomore guard Brad Davison did a little bit of everything, sophomore forward Nate Reuvers produced on both ends of the court and reserves Kobe King and Aleem Ford provided a spark off the bench.

“As you can see by their play this year, they’ve had some really good wins,” Beilein said after falling to 5-17 against the Badgers. “They’ve had some really close losses, which will bode well for them as they grow. One of the big things is we haven’t had the opportunity to grow from losses. We needed that growth today.”

All but two of Michigan’s 17 wins have been decided by double digits. And the Wolverines hadn’t been in a truly close game since Dec. 4, when they trailed at Northwestern with under 5 minutes remaining before rallying for a two-point win.

That lack of tight-game experience showed for Michigan (17-1, 6-1), which couldn’t survive some sloppy play down the stretch. Two areas that have cost the Badgers in some of their defeats are free throw shooting and turnovers; Saturday, it was the Wolverines doing the self-destructing, finishing 5 of 11 from the line with 16 turnovers.

Afterward, Happ put it in simple terms: “They missed some shots that we needed them to miss,” he said, “and we made plays that we needed to make.”

UW’s defense was superb against Michigan, which shot 40.7 percent overall, missed 13 of its 18 attempts from 3-point range and averaged 0.83 points per possession. The Wolverines, who came into the game averaging 9.5 turnovers per game, gave the ball away on nearly a quarter of their possessions against the Badgers.

What was the key?

“Energy and communication, something that coach (Greg) Gard has been talking a lot about recently,” Davison said. “Just making sure we’re five guys connected out there. If someone makes a mistake or slips up, we have his back. Just making sure that we stick together on the defensive end.”

Junior center Jon Teske had 15 points to lead Michigan, while junior point guard Zavier Simpson finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.

In addition to the load he carried on offense, Happ played a key role in UW shutting down Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis. The freshman forward came into the game averaging a team-best 15.6 points but was held scoreless after missing all five of his attempts from the field.

Michigan sophomore guard Jordan Poole finished with 14 points, but the former Milwaukee King standout did almost all of his damage in the first half. Poole, who was hounded by Davison, was 1 of 6 from the field after halftime and didn’t score over the final 14:51.

“Their defense was excellent,” Beilein said.

Happ scored four points, Ford had a three-point play and King drained a 3-pointer to fuel a 10-1 run that helped UW turn a three-point deficit into a 50-44 lead with 5:50 remaining.

But there was still plenty of work to be done for the Badgers, especially after Michigan’s Isaiah Livers made it a one-possession game on a step-back 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of Reuvers with 1:01 left.

If UW was going to wilt under the pressure and lose another close game, this seemed like a natural starting point. Instead, Beilein did the Badgers a huge favor.

After being instructed to foul Happ, Brazdeikis did just that. Problem was, Happ was nowhere near the ball, and the officials issued a Flagrant 1 foul on Brazdeikis.

Happ made 1 of 2 free throws and UW kept the ball. Sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice drove to the basket late in the shot clock and found Happ, who couldn’t finish from point-blank range but followed with a putback to give the Badgers a 60-54 lead with 21.7 seconds left.

Simpson raced down the court and attempted a 3-pointer, but Reuvers deflected it and Happ chased down the loose ball. He passed ahead to Reuvers, whose dunk put an exclamation point on a victory that inspired the students in attendance to storm the court.

After so many near-misses, the Badgers finally put together a solid 40 minutes against a team that, by all accounts, appears to be a legitimate Final Four contender.

“It proved that they’ve got it,” UW coach Greg Gard said. “We’ve known that, it’s just a matter of showing it all the time.”

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