Ethan Happ walked gingerly out of the Kohl Center media room Tuesday night, his left hand pressed against his lower back after another physical Big Ten Conference game.
The look on his face also told a story about pain: Happ’s heart was aching, and so was his pride.
On a night when the standout senior center reached two more significant milestones in his illustrious career with the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, the negatives outweighed the positives for Happ.
Afterward, he didn’t hesitate to take his share of the blame for the No. 20 Badgers’ 67-59 loss to No. 11 Michigan State, a defeat that put an unlikely Big Ten title further out of reach for UW.
Happ finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds for his 48th career double-double, moving him past Joe Franklin for the most in program history. He also reached the 2,000-point mark for his career, becoming the third UW player to accomplish that feat.
But the basket that put Happ at 2,000 – a hook shot with 6 minutes, 2 seconds remaining — ended up being his final points of the game.
By the time UW (17-8, 9-5 Big Ten) had finished off a late collapse that was mostly the result of yet another offensive drought, Happ had gone 10 of 20 from the field with six turnovers.
The stat that was eating at Happ the most: He was 0 of 6 from the free throw line.
“That’s something that I’m going to have to get over mentally,” Happ said. “It’s a long season, so I’m looking forward to helping my team in that area as the season goes on.”
If voters were using this matchup to determine a frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year, it’s likely Happ lost ground in that race.
The best player on the floor, from start to finish, was Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston. He finished with a game-high 23 points and six assists while also doing spectacular work on the other end of the court, holding UW sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice in check.
“Consummate point guard in terms of making decisions, the ball’s to the right place,” UW coach Greg Gard said of Winston, who played all but 55 seconds. “He puts a lot of pressure on your defense.”
Junior forward Nick Ward and senior forward Kenny Goins added 12 points apiece for the Spartans (20-5, 11-3), who beat the Badgers for the sixth consecutive time. Goins, who was questionable for the game with an elbow injury, knocked down a huge 3-pointer in the final minute.
The Spartans had enough big bodies to throw at Happ, whose back pain likely was caused by the forearm of either Ward, Goins or Xavier Tillman serving as the first line of defense against him. Other than Happ and sophomore forward Nate Reuvers (11 points), no other Badgers reached double figures.
UW went 6 of 20 from 3-point range, with Reuvers accounting for half of those conversions. The backcourt of Trice and sophomore Brad Davison finished a combined 4 of 18 overall from the field and 2 of 10 from 3-point range.
“Our big deal was to give up some layups,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, “and not give up the 3s.”
Izzo joked that for the Spartans and Badgers to combine for 75 points in the first half – UW led 38-37 at the break – was “kind of un-American, especially here.” He described the game as a “war,” and Izzo was mostly talking about a second half in which UW managed only 21 points.
Happ’s aforementioned hook shot cut Michigan State’s lead to 56-55, and that deficit was still one point after Davison made 1 of 2 free throws with 5:21 remaining.
What followed was the type of offensive famine that has plagued UW at times this season, particularly in Big Ten play.
The Badgers had seven consecutive empty possessions, with five missed field goals, two turnovers and two missed free throws by Happ in that awful stretch. They went nearly 6 minutes without a field goal and 5:11 without a point until Davison’s meaningless 3 on the second-to-last possession of the game.
UW’s defense gave it a chance until Goins got free for a 3-pointer from the left wing late in the shot clock that gave the Spartans a 62-56 lead with 32.4 seconds left.
“When you’re in a game like this against a team like this, you have to be able to be complete,” Gard said. “And the last 10 possessions, obviously we weren’t.”
Happ had missed two free throws with UW down six and 14:07 left, and two more with the score tied at 49 and 9:40 remaining. He even drew sympathy from Izzo.
“Part of me, because of the type of kid he is, you feel for kids like that,” Izzo said.
The six misses from the line dropped Happ to 44.5 percent this season and 34.9 percent in Big Ten play. Some of his misses have been a bit long or a bit short during his struggles from the line, but they weren’t even on target Tuesday.
“You’ve got to continue to chip away and hope there’s a breakthrough, continue to work with him,” said Gard, who pointed out once again that nobody has worked harder on that part of his game than Happ. “I think the biggest thing is you support him and know that he does so many good things for us. And he does so many positive things for the program. I feel his frustration, because obviously those are huge opportunities and points we leave on the table.”
The win, combined with a Michigan loss at Penn State, helped the Spartans move into a first-place tie with the Wolverines. UW fell to fifth place, two games behind the co-leaders with six games to play.
“It makes it tougher, definitely,” Happ said. “We’re just going to have to take care of the rest of our games that we have if we want any chance.”