Illini basketball squanders 13-point lead, falls to Badgers

By Eli Schwadron, Staff writer

MADISON — Vitto Brown is 6-foot-8, 237 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan.

Khalid Lewis is half a foot shorter and fifty pounds lighter, but Illinois’ starting point guard still decided to enter the trees Sunday night.

Near the end of Wisconsin’s 69-60 win in Madison, Brown sent Lewis’ shot away with such ease, as if to say, ‘What were you thinking?’

Brown’s big block was the exclamation point on a 69-60 Badgers (17-10, 9-5 Big Ten) win over the Illini (12-15, 4-10 Big Ten).

The first half was a defensive grind. Neither side seemed to get a handle on the ball through the game’s first 10 minutes, with players getting caught in the air and bricking open shots. Wisconsin found its groove first, embarking on a 12-0 run, and then Illinois counterpunched with a 12-0 run of its own.

Kendrick Nunn shot 4-of-9 for 12 points in the first half, and the Illini led 29-24 at the break.

Illinois’ lead ballooned to 13 in the second period, but Wisconsin came roaring back thanks to from Ethan Happ (20 points, 12 rebounds, six steals), Nigel Hayes (17 points) and Bronson Koenig (14 points, five rebounds). They were the main contributors in a massive, 28-4 second-half run for the Badgers.

With six minutes and change in regulation, Happ got a steal, which resulted in a Hayes short jumper. The bucket gave the Badgers a 48-46 advantage – their first lead since 2:30 in the first half.

The Illini would never fully recover.

They played terrific basketball for 30 minutes before things started to unravel. Hayes got it going after shooting 0-for-5 in the first half, Maverick Morgan fouled out and Kendrick Nunn committed costly turnovers.

“Give them credit. They made three big (3-pointers) during their run,” head coach John Groce said. “Koenig, Hayes and Showalter all made big shots. Brown had a big one in the high post that was a huge shot. And then we had some plays where we needed to be stronger with the ball.”

Malcolm Hill (20 points, seven rebounds, two steals) did all he could to keep his team in the game, but Illinois fouls piled up and proved costly.

“We’ve got to figure out how we can play harder without fouling,” Groce said. “That’s important to us. We’ve been good at it. We want that to continue to be a staple moving forward, and we’ve got to get that corrected. I thought it was maybe the biggest difference in the game.”

Happ was the beneficiary of many such fouls. The redshirt freshman and Milan, Illinois, native shot 5-of-7 from the field and went to the charity stripe seven times, going 10-of-14 from the line.

“(Happ) is tough to cover one-on-one because he’s such a good ball handler down there and he has good balance,” Groce said. “He can drive you baseline, he can come to the middle of the floor, he’s got good touch and I think he plays the game the right way.”

As a team, Wisconsin shot 33 free throws, compared to Illinois’ 10 attempts.

Sunday’s game marked the Badgers’ 10th straight win over the Illini. Groce’s bunch will head back to Champaign for a matchup with Indiana on Thursday.

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