MADISON, Wis. — Free throws. Free throws. Free throws. Despite a sharp-looking Iowa squad with a quick start, No. 19 Wisconsin edged the Hawkeyes, 72-69, Wednesday night at the Kohl Center.
“We came into a very difficult place to come away with a win, and I thought we did a good job,” Head Coach Steve Alford said. “They go to the line 21 more times than we did, and that’s a very difficult stat to overcome.”
The Badgers (16-5, 7-3 Big Ten) hit 27 of 35 from the charity stripe (77.1 percent) compared to 7 of 14 for Iowa (15-7, 3-6). They also nailed 8 of 10 in the final 1 ½ minutes of the game.
“I don’t know if I have ever really seen a disparity,” said Kammron Taylor, a 6-foot-2 freshman guard who came off the bench for a game-high 26 points. “I think we were aggressive and when you’re aggressive hopefully you’re going to draw the calls. We were aggressive today, both the posts and the guards.”
Iowa started the game with a dominating pace, though, and junior co-captain Greg Brunner scored the first seven points for the Hawkeyes to give them their first lead of the game with 15 minutes to play in the first half. Brunner scored 16 in the first to lead his team.
For the game, he scored a team-high 27 points.
“It was a well-played basketball game that you love to see,” Brunner said. “It was typical of Big Ten basketball with its ups and downs.”
The Hawkeyes got out to as much as a nine-point lead, after a 12-2 run midway through the half. That run was capped off by a three-point play by Doug Thomas, who got a dunk and a foul by Andreas Helmigk. But Wisconsin slowly stayed with the Hawkeyes thanks to eight free throws.
Jeff Horner, who went 7-of-19 for the game and didn’t have a single trip to the charity stripe, nailed back-to-back 3-pointers to give Iowa a five-point lead with seven minutes to play in the half, but Sharif Chambliss answered with a deep 3 for himself.
Combined with a layup by Taylor and a foul by Adam Haluska with no time on the clock, Wisconsin’s senior center Mike Wilkinson tied the game, 34-34, on free throws to go into halftime.
And despite being shut down for most of the first half, while Brunner capitalized offensively, Wilkinson scored 20 points for the Badgers, going 10-of-12 from the line.
“It’s satisfying right now,” Wilkinson said. “We didn’t do a lot of things right at points of the game. We did find a way to get things done at the end of the game – when we needed to. But we need to put that together for 40 minutes.”
The same could be said for Iowa.
Horner nailed three 3-pointers in the first eight minutes of the second half to give Iowa its biggest lead of the game, 52-39, but Wisconsin responded by launching a 22-4 run highlighted with back-to-back jump hooks by Wilkinson.
“It’s spurts and runs,” Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan said. “The key was in the second half, when Mike, on a couple of dribble attacks, a couple things that he did that said, `Get on my back, we’re going to ride this thing.’ “
Brunner agreed that Wilkinson’s play was decisive.
“(Wisconsin) is an amazing team based around Wilkinson,” he said. “He can do a lot of things.”
The Badgers tied it up again with a 3-pointer by Taylor with 5:40 to play, as Iowa struggled to make shots from beyond the arc. Iowa was 8-of-21 for 3-pointers.
Horner, who was 5-of-10 from the outside the perimeter, scored 19 points for Iowa, grabbed five rebounds and had four assists.
Wisconsin took its first lead since 14:31 in the first half on another hook shot by Wilkinson, going up 56-54 on the Hawkeyes.
But Brunner equalized on a layup and Haluska tied it again with a driving layup with just less than three minutes to play. The Badgers wouldn’t give up their lead, however, going on a binge of free throws.
Brunner had the last score of the game, a put-back with 2.9 seconds left to close to within three.
Haluska put in 16 points on 5-of-11 shooing.
“I think it really started when we were up 13 points, and we started to miss out on some key free throws and missed out on some opportunities to extend the lead,” Horner said. “They came down the stretch, and it was almost like the Michigan State game, where they just came back and just fought us.”
Haluska said that his team needs to focus on closing games, which has been a tough spot for Iowa. The Hawkeyes are 7-4 in games decided by 10 points or less, and all four losses are in conference games.
“It’s something that we’re going to have to figure out,” the sophomore said. “We have to take it back to the team and see what we need to do at the end to finish games. I think that free throws are a big factor in that.”
Alford said that his team continued to make progress, just like after the Michigan State game.
“There were a lot of things that were very pleasing,” the coach said. “We played better tonight than we played against Michigan State. I really like what we did, but we just haven’t gotten over the hump on the road.”
Iowa returns home to host Northwestern at 7 p.m. on Saturday, while Wisconsin travels to No. 1 Illinois that same day.
“We have to make sure that we do everything we can do to get a win on Saturday,” Alford said.
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com