Wisconsin loss hampers title hopes
The 14th-ranked Badgers had all kinds of chances against Minnesota on Thursday night, but their trusty outside shots just wouldn’t fall against a team as motivated as it has been all season.
Blake Hoffarber had 16 points and nine rebounds to lead inspired Minnesota to the 68-52 victory that put a sizable dent in the Badgers’ conference title bid.
Trevon Hughes scored 19 points and Jason Bohannon added 18 for Wisconsin (19-7, 9-5), which went almost 8 minutes without scoring down the stretch, was outrebounded 41-28 for the game, and fell two games behind conference leader Michigan State.
The Badgers went 11 of 30 from 3-point range. They lined the shots up well, but the ball wouldn’t fall when they needed it to.
“I thought we had some pretty good looks,” coach Bo Ryan said.
Junior forward Jon Leuer returned from a broken left wrist that kept him out of the last nine games, but he went 2 of 12 for four points. Ralph Sampson III’s defense had a hand in that for Minnesota (15-10, 6-7), and he added 10 points and eight rebounds.
The Badgers exploited the Gophers’ transparent perimeter defense as most teams in the Big Ten have, but their usual dominant defense was missing some fire allowing 35 points in the first half. They are still a lock for the NCAA tournament, but this was a big blow.
“We had a crappy week of practice, and it was all my fault,” Hughes said. “I was being a goofball in practice all week, and that’s unacceptable. I messed up in my leadership.”
The Gophers have been missing that quality all season, but with a show of support for junior forward Paul Carter they found their groove, played with poise and hustled like they haven’t in weeks.
“We saw some real solidarity, some real teamwork,” coach Tubby Smith said.
The Gophers looked a lot like the close-cropped Badgers, literally, with freshly shaved heads to honor Carter’s younger sister, Bria, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.
“Paul’s a great leader. He’s a very spiritual guy, a very emotional guy, so I think he really appreciated it,” said Damian Johnson, who added 11 points.
Hoffarber, the nation’s leading 3-point shooter, wasn’t just camping out behind the circle as he sometimes does. He ran off screens and flashed to the lane a few times, too, and put himself in perfect position for some long rebounds.
Bohannon, coming off a career-high 30-point game against Indiana last weekend, knocked down two 3-pointers midway through the second half and got the Badgers within 45-42 at the 9:40 mark.
They didn’t score again until a 3-pointer by Hughes with less than 2 minutes left ended the drought.
The crucial possession came with a 47-42 score and included three straight open misses from the outside, the last grabbed by the 6-foot-4 Hoffarber.
“Any time you get those open shots and you keep getting those offensive rebounds, you’ve got to make them pay somehow,” Bohannon said. “We’ve got to get some points out of that possession.”
The student section had an edge, too, frequently mocking Ryan with an obscene chant and taunting the handful of brave Wisconsin fans penetrating the sea of gold with their red wear.
The 6-10 Leuer is Wisconsin’s most versatile player, able to score in the post and on the perimeter, but he looked out of rhythm in 26 minutes and missed his first six shots.
“He’ll find his mark,” Ryan said. “That wasn’t Jon’s fault or anything that Jon wasn’t trying to do. He’s still a good player. He still means a lot to us.”
Smith played Sampson and Colton Iverson together at times to help neutralize Leuer and Wisconsin’s other long-armed big men down low, and it worked.
Ryan was growling about the officiating, with 10 fouls on Wisconsin and four on Minnesota late in the first half, and was slapped with a technical foul. He sarcastically clapped as he walked in between the refs on the way to the locker room, the Badgers down 35-26.