Northwestern falls in semifinals of Big Ten tournament
WASHINGTON — Going up against Wisconsin’s defense is a challenge under almost any circumstance. When the opposition is playing its third game in three days, it’s a mismatch.
And so it was Saturday, when the Badgers harassed and hounded weary Northwestern in a 76-48 victory that thrust No. 24 Wisconsin into the Big Ten Tournament championship game for the third time in five years.
Nigel Hayes scored 18 points and Ethan Happ added 16 for the second-seeded Badgers. They never trailed in their third straight victory — second in the tournament — following a run of five losses in six games.
Wisconsin (25-8) will vie for its fourth Big Ten title Sunday against No. 8 seed Michigan, which will be playing its fourth game in four days. It will be the seventh championship game appearance for the Badgers, trailing only the eight by Ohio State.
Northwestern (23-11) was playing for the second time in less than 24 hours, and it showed. Coming off wins over Rutgers and No. 3 seed Maryland, the Wildcats missed 20 of 27 shots in the first half, had only one assist and trailed 38-21.
Their poor shooting could be attributed in part to the Wisconsin defense, which allowed a Big Ten-low 61.5 points per game. It was the 18th time in 33 games the Badgers yielded 60 points or fewer.
“This team takes pride in what they do defensively, and how consistent and good they can be,” coach Greg Gard said.
Scottie Lindsey scored 16 points for Northwestern, which went 18 for 52 (35 percent) from the floor, was outrebounded 37-27 and didn’t get its second assist until the 8-minute mark of the second half.
“They guarded us pretty well,” said guard Bryant McIntosh, the Wildcats’ leading scorer, who went 4 for 12 and finished with eight points. “They took a lot of our stuff away, pushed us out on the floor.”
Northwestern brought none of the momentum from the Maryland game into this one, missing its first seven shots and falling behind 15-3 with seven minutes elapsed.
It was 19-13 before Wisconsin’s Zak Showalter popped a pair of 3-pointers to start a 15-6 spurt that widened the gap to 15 points.
After what the Wildcats had already gone through this week, they simply didn’t have the strength to make a comeback.
“It’s about energy. It’s about effort. We didn’t have enough of either,” McIntosh said. “Didn’t even deserve to be on the floor with them at some points.”
The second half was much like the first. After Northwestern closed to 48-33, D’Mitrik Trice and Vitto Brown each nailed a pair of 3-pointers in a 16-4 run that made it 64-37 with 7:44 remaining.
A complete performance like this would seem to indicate that Wisconsin is peaking at just the right time.
“We finally came together, both offensively and defensively, and we’re playing better team defense as a whole,” starting guard Bronson Koenig said.
THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBLE-BYE
Wisconsin was the far fresher team, which is why the teams compete so hard during the regular season to receive the double-bye that comes with a top-four finish.
“Their legs were a little sore, their feet a little slower tonight,” Showalter said about the Wildcats.
The Badgers hope to see a ragged Michigan team, too. The Wolverines beat Illinois, No. 13 Purdue and Minnesota after their plane skidded off the runway earlier in the week and delayed their arrival in D.C.
Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus was in attendance for the third time in three days, though she had little to cheer about. Her son, seldom-used sophomore Charlie Hall, plays for Northwestern but didn’t get in the game.
Northwestern: This loss takes nothing away from what the Wildcats have accomplished this season, setting a school record for wins and beating 25th-ranked Maryland to earn a berth in the Big Ten semifinals.
Wisconsin: The Badgers have clearly righted themselves after that horrid stretch at the end of the regular season in which lost to Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa in succession.
Northwestern: The school that hosted the first NCAA Tournament in 1939 but still hasn’t played in one should put an end to that dubious distinction.
Wisconsin: The Badgers seek their second Big Ten title in three years. They beat Michigan at home 68-64 on Jan. 17 and lost on the road 64-58 on Feb. 16.