MADISON, Wis. (AP)—Northwestern might be at the bottom of the Big Ten, but that doesn’t mean the Wildcats are an easy out.
No. 2 Wisconsin survived its second tough game from Northwestern in less than a month, holding on for a 69-52 victory on Saturday after whittling away a 24-point lead.
The Badgers (22-2, 8-1 Big Ten) rebounded from their first conference loss of the season, a 71-66 defeat at Indiana on Wednesday that snapped a 17-game winning streak.
“It re-lit our fire, and we’re ready to spark it back up,” said Alando Tucker, who scored 20 to lead the Badgers.
But it wasn’t easy. Wisconsin was forced to grind it out at Northwestern’s deliberate pace early on, then weather a late rally that allowed the Wildcats (11-11, 1-8) to give Wisconsin a scare in the final minutes.
The Badgers opened up a 24-point lead on an inside basket by Greg Stiemsma with 8:53 remaining in the game. But Wisconsin then went scoreless for more than six minutes and Northwestern went on a 14-0 run.
A layup by Vince Scott cut the Badgers’ lead to 62-52 with 3:17 remaining.
“We were down 22 or 24 and at that time, that’s sort of a gut check,” said Kevin Coble, who scored 24 to lead Northwestern. “You’ve got to kind of bear down and I think we did that. Got it back to 10 and just couldn’t quite get back over the hump today. But I think if we continue to work hard, something will come.”
Wisconsin’s Kammron Taylor was fouled and made two free throws to break the Badgers’ scoring drought with 2:49 remaining. Scott missed a 3-pointer, and Wisconsin held off Northwestern the rest of the way.
“We just have to make sure that we do a better job of closing out,” Taylor said. “We can’t let teams get back like Northwestern did.”
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody figured the loss earlier this week motivated the Badgers.
“Maybe it gave them more fire in practice, but I didn’t think they played that badly against a pretty good team,” Carmody said.
Badgers coach Bo Ryan said he didn’t use the loss as motivation.
“I don’t know anything about the first loss and all that stuff, because that never entered the preparation on Thursday or Friday or coming into the game today,” Ryan said. “(I) never really mentioned it, other then you go over the game film and the first part of practice, go over some things we did or didn’t do well.”
The Wildcats’ only Big Ten victory this season came at Minnesota Jan. 20. But Wisconsin came into Saturday’s game wary of the Wildcats, who nearly upset the Badgers in a close 56-50 loss Jan. 13.
“I think we’re confident that this is a team we can beat,” Coble said. “You just have to come in here and play a near-perfect game to win.”
Coble’s 24-point performance was one short of his career high. Coble, a true freshman, came into Saturday’s game as Northwestern’s leading scorer at 12.2 points per game.
Coble sat out the Wildcats’ first game against the Badgers because of an injury, and Ryan figured he might have learned something while sitting on the bench.
“He’s a good shooter, and he understands the offense really well,” Ryan said.
Wisconsin opened up a 33-19 lead by halftime, then opened the second half with a 10-4 run. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Michael Flowers and Tucker put Wisconsin ahead 43-23 with 17:02 remaining.
The Badgers were 7-for-15 from 3-point range, including 3-for-6 by Taylor, who scored 15.
It was another indication that the Badgers are improving against zone defenses, which has been perceived as a potential weakness.
“Maybe that’s something that teams see that we were struggling with” Taylor said. “But we’re still going to attack the zone and take the threes if they’re there.”
Tucker, the conference’s second-leading scorer behind Iowa’s Adam Haluska, broke the 20-point mark for the third straight game. The senior forward was named co-Big Ten player of the week last week—the fourth time in his career he has claimed the award.
“We don’t want to lose again,” Tucker said. “We got that hunger back.”
Wisconsin improved its shaky free throw shooting on Saturday, hitting 16 of 20 from the line. The Badgers came into the game shooting only 68.2 percent from the line.
Northwestern, meanwhile, shot only two free throws the entire game as the Badgers were called for only five fouls.
“We have glimpses of how (good) we can be,” Coble said. “It’s just something we have to sustain over a period of 40 minutes—not 18 in the first half and 14 in the second half. We have to put something together where it’s the entire game. When we do that, that’ll be something special.”