Wisconsin Badgers’ stellar backcourt play in crunch time fuels rally past N.C. State Wolfpack
The tone was set early last season when the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team lost a series of close games in part because the opponents had veteran guards making big plays down the stretch of close games.
Now, it’s the Badgers showing off experience and savvy in the backcourt in crunch time.
That certainly was the case Tuesday night at the Kohl Center, where No. 22 UW rallied from a 12-point deficit in the second half to beat North Carolina State 79-75 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
One of the heroes was sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice, who finished with 18 points, six assists, three steals in 34 minutes. His biggest contribution was a jumper late in the shot clock in the final minute when the Badgers were clinging to a one-point lead.
And then there was sophomore guard Brad Davison, who made two free throws to seal the win and finished with 12 points. He also drew four charges, including one on the ensuing possession after Trice’s big shot.
“We’re a way more experienced team than we were last year,” Trice said after the Badgers improved to 6-1 heading into their Big Ten opener at No. 14 Iowa on Friday night. “You can see just the composure on these guys: never too high, never too low high, just kind of that even-keel mentality.”
It takes a village to rally back from double digits against a good team, and the Badgers had plenty of players do their part against the Wolfpack (6-1).
Senior center Ethan Happ overcame a rough first half to finish with 19 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
Sophomore Aleem Ford, in his fourth game back since returning from a left knee injury, knocked down four 3-pointers and finished with 12 points in 21 minutes.
Ford, redshirt freshman wing Kobe King, sophomore guard Trevor Anderson and junior guard Brevin Pritzl combined for 26 points off the bench for UW. All four of them hit shots during UW’s comeback.
“It was just a team win,” Happ said. “It wasn’t (relying) on one or two guys. I don’t know if that’s how it would have been last year in a game like this. I think we’re a lot more balanced this year than we were last year and I think that’s what has really helped us this season.”
The Badgers shot 62.1 percent from the field in the second half and went 11 of 21 overall from 3-point range. They needed all the offense they could muster to get past the North Carolina State, which got 21 points from junior guard Markell Johnson and 18 from junior guard C.J. Bryce.
The smaller Wolfpack outscored the Badgers 32-30 in the paint and finished with a 36-30 edge on the boards. They practically matched UW shot for shot in the second half, holding the Badgers off as long as possible before Trice and Co. finally broke through.
“It felt like it was a February conference game,” North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts said. “It was a great game. Unfortunately, we came up on the short end of the stick.”
UW pulled to within a point or two multiple times in the second half only to have Johnson, Bryce or senior Torin Dorn (14 points) make a tough shot to help the Wolfpack restore their cushion.
Trice tied it on a free throw with 1 minute, 20 seconds remaining and Happ made one to give UW the lead for good on the next possession.
After a miss by Johnson, UW took some time off the clock and tried to set up a high-ball screen involving Happ and Trice at the top of the key. That went nowhere and Trice was left in no-man’s land with the shot clock winding down.
But Trice remain composed, got to one of his hot spots just inside the arc and buried a pull-up jumper to give the Badgers a 76-73 lead with 23.6 seconds left.
“There were about five seconds on it when I looked up, and I knew that’s enough time to get to one of the moves I like to do, which is the one-dribble pull-up,” Trice said. “And it just stuck.”
Davison beat Johnson to a spot on the left wing and drew a charge with 17.9 seconds remaining, the third taken by Davison in the second half alone.
“I just continue to play the defense that I usually play,” Davison said. “Calls are one thing you can’t control, but effort and being in the right place are something that you can control.”
After a free throw by Trice, Johnson scored on a drive to cut UW’s lead to 77-75 with 11.6 seconds left.
After a timeout, Davison took the inbounds pass and was fouled. He calmly made both free throws to seal what UW coach Greg Gard called a “gritty” win.
“I think this group has embraced that,” Gard said. “They understand as they grew through last year what it took when you have to dig a little deeper, and they’ve embodied that.
“You’ll be in situations a lot of times where things don’t go as you planned and don’t go as you want. … But to have the fortitude to keep fighting back and keep rallying is a good trait to have.”