MADISON – Back at full strength for the first time in nearly two weeks, the Wisconsin men’s basketball team hoped to make a statement Saturday at the Kohl Center.
The badgers did, although not the type they had planned.
In suffering an ugly 61-51 loss to Illinois, the Badgers showed that they didn’t play well enough to put on 40 minutes of game-winning basketball at either end of the court.
Greg Gard’s team can play well in spurts, but it hasn’t been good enough and won’t be good enough for the rest of the season.
“We have to play for 40 minutes,” said guard Max Klesmit, back in the lineup after missing two games due to facial injuries and a concussion.
Cold shooting was the problem in the first half as the Badgers hit just 3 of 14 3-pointers (21.4%) and 6 of 33 total shots (18.2%), but trailed only 20-16 .
Box Score:Illinois 61, Wisconsin 51
“I thought our defense was great,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said of the first half. “You don’t often do that against a Wisconsin team.”
After trailing by 12 points early in the second half, the Badgers found their shooting touch behind guard Chucky Hepburn and fought back for a 35–34 lead with 11 minutes and 32 seconds remaining.
UW then nodded at both ends of the field as Matthew Mayer scored 10 of his game-high 26 points in a 22-4 Illinois run.
The Illini held a 56-39 lead with 4:03 left and hopes of a UW win were all but gone.
The loss put the Badgers (12-8, 4-6 Big Ten) in the midst of their second three-game losing streak of the season and have won just once in their last seven games.
Illinois (15-6, 6-4) defeated UW for the second time this season, winning six of its last seven games. The turnaround began with a 79-69 victory over UW in Champaign.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of our group,” Underwood said. “They had a 15-2 run and to withstand that and then make our own run shows that our guys are growing up.”
Mayer, who was relatively quiet (10 points, six rebounds) in the teams first meeting, scored 18 of his points after halftime. Regularly guarded by UW freshman Connor Essegian, Mayer hit 5 of 11 three-pointers and 9 of 18 total shots. He hit 2 3-pointers in the deciding run of 22-4.
“He’s playing great basketball right now,” senior forward Tyler Wahl said of Mayer. “He attacks the offensive glass. He can score just about anywhere. He can go downhill. We didn’t have an answer for him today.”
Klesmit took care of UW early on, finishing with 12 points, eight rebounds and two assists.
More:Max Klesmit’s absence from the last two Big Ten games has been felt, but Wisconsin is expected to have him back against Illinois
Dassen’s last game:Wisconsin’s defense is struggling tremendously with the loss at Maryland
Hepburn, who hit only 4 of 16 shots in the loss to Northwestern and took only three shots in the loss at Maryland, missed his first six field goal attempts on Saturday. His first hit was a three-pointer with 14:39 left to help pull UW within six points.
He finished with 15 points and five rebounds and was much more aggressive than during the Maryland loss.
Wahl, who did not play in the first Illinois game, went to the bench for the final 15:07 of the first half after noticing his second foul. He picked up his third and fourth offenses in the space of three seconds early in the second half to finish with nine points and four rebounds in 19 minutes.
The only other game this season where he played fewer minutes was against Minnesota, when he played 8:50 before suffering an ankle injury that kept him out of the lineup for three games.
“That’s up to me,” he said. “I need to get better. That’s the bottom line.”
Steven Crowl, who had a double-double (20 points, 12 rebounds) in the teams’ first meeting, had only two points in Saturday’s first half. He got his fourth foul with 9:49 left in the game and finished with seven points and seven rebounds.
The game was tied at 37 as Crowl picked up his fourth foul. When he returned with 6:58 left, UW trailed 46-37.
“I thought when Steve got his fourth that really changed the tone of the game,” said Gard. “We have better positions for ourselves where you are not… No team can bench your better players like that.”
Essegian, after a 19-point performance at Maryland, suffered a freshman game at both ends of the field. He missed all five field goal attempts, struggled on defense, and finished with three points.
“I thought we looked really good,” Gard said. “Connor, we got him a few things. It was one of those days. He hasn’t had many if he can’t get the ball in the basket. Today was a struggle for him.”
The Badgers struggled to score early as Illinois was throwing rocks and missed a chance to build a lead at halftime. They shot 54.2% after the break, but only scored 14 points during the final 10:11 of the game and let the Illini score 22 points on 10 possessions on the 18-point decisive swing.
“I feel like we did a pretty good job early in the year in limiting the number of runs the other team would have,” Wahl said. “And we would react. Right now we haven’t been able to stop the defense. They keep running and we call time out and nothing (changes). They just keep doing what they want to do.”
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This article originally appeared in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin falls to Illinois, 61-51, badgers third loss in a row