LINCOLN, Neb. — After receiving plenty of help this week around the Big Ten, it was up to the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team to take advantage of it.
The No. 7 Badgers did that Thursday night — just barely.
Senior forward Nigel Hayes scored 18 of his game-high 20 points after halftime to help UW beat Nebraska 70-69 in overtime at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Hayes’ 3-pointer with 18.4 seconds remaining led to a win that gave UW a 1½-game lead in the Big Ten with seven games to play. While second-place Purdue won earlier Thursday night at Indiana, three other title contenders — Maryland, Northwestern and Michigan State — lost earlier this week.
The Badgers (21-3, 10-1 Big Ten), meanwhile, keep taking care of business. Their eighth consecutive victory wasn’t pretty — that’s becoming a familiar refrain with this team — but UW will take a road win any way it can get it, style points be damned.
Nebraska coach Tim Miles may have summed it up best after the game when talking about the Badgers, whose winning streak includes three overtime wins and two other games decided by six or fewer points.
“They’ve been through battles,” Miles said, “and they don’t get rattled.”
Senior guard Zak Showalter scored 15 points and senior guard Bronson Koenig added 12 for UW.
Senior guard Tai Webster scored 19 points to lead Nebraska, which also got 15 from sophomore guard Glynn Watson Jr. and 10 from sophomore forward Michael Jacobson.
Ed Morrow Jr. returned to the lineup for Nebraska (10-14, 4-8) after missing seven games with a right foot injury, and the sophomore forward grabbed 13 rebounds.
But even a lineup that was close to full strength couldn’t prevent the Cornhuskers’ eighth loss in their last nine games.
Constant double-teams in the post led to major struggles for UW star Ethan Happ, who was held to eight points on 3-of-9 shooting. But the sophomore forward grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds and made two big defensive plays in the closing seconds of the game.
The teams traded baskets in the extra session, which included a four-point play by Showalter, a 3-pointer by Koenig that banked in and two late-clock jumpers from Nebraska: a 3-pointer by Watson and a 17-footer from Jacobson.
Webster made two free throws with 1:11 remaining to give Nebraska a 69-67 lead, and Koenig missed a jumper on the other end. After a foul on Happ, Morrow missed two free throws with 43.8 seconds remaining.
UW called a timeout with 25.8 seconds remaining and 13 left on the shot clock. The Badgers set up a play in which Hayes set a screen for Koenig, who was being guarded by Webster. Jacobson, who was guarding Hayes, forced the ball out of Koenig’s hands with a hard hedge, leaving Hayes open at the top of the key for a 3-pointer that gave UW a one-point lead.
“I can live with the decision to not switch the screen because I know how good Bronson Koenig is. I’ve seen him do it,” Miles said. “Not that I don’t think Nigel can (make it), but you’re playing the numbers.”
It was Hayes’ only attempt from 3-point range in the game. He was shooting 29.8 percent from beyond the arc entering the game, including eight misses in nine attempts over the previous three games.
“Like Ethan and I like to say to one another, big players make big-time plays,” Hayes said. “You know me well, I never lose confidence in myself. I could have missed my last 30 3s — I knew I was going to make that one.”
After a timeout, Webster drove to the rim. But his shot was blocked by Happ, who corralled the rebound and called a timeout with 3.3 seconds left.
“He had been scoring a lot, so we kind of knew that once he got in there he was probably going to try and put one up,” Happ said. “We had a lot of guys do great chest-ups and I just saw the ball, so I went for it and got a block.”
Hayes was fouled with 2.2 seconds remaining and missed both free throws, but Happ poked the ball out of Jacobson’s grasp — Nebraska’s 22nd turnover of the game — and the Badgers survived.
The Badgers led 49-43 with 7:10 remaining in regulation after a pair of free throws by redshirt freshman guard Brevin Pritzl.
But Nebraska answered with a 9-0 run that included four points from Webster and three from Jacobson, whose two free throws gave the Cornhuskers a 52-49 lead with 4:22 remaining.
UW responded with a 7-1 lead that included five points from Showalter, whose 3-pointer from the left wing gave the Badgers a 56-53 lead with 2:30 left.
Watson made two free throws with 1:20 left and the Cornhuskers had a chance to take the lead on their next possession, but UW freshman guard D’Mitrik Trice forced a jump ball and the Badgers got the ball with 41.6 seconds remaining.
The Badgers’ ensuing possession was sloppy, but Hayes saved it with a turn-around jumper from the left block that rolled around the rim and fell through the net to give UW a three-point lead.
Gard said he didn’t consider fouling on Nebraska’s final possession. UW’s priorities were to keep Webster, Watson and Jack McVeigh from getting off a shot from beyond the arc.
Instead, the ball ended up in the hands of Jacobson, who was 3 of 21 from beyond the arc coming into the game and hadn’t attempted a 3-pointer since the Big Ten opener against Indiana on Dec. 28. He had no choice with time running out and drained a 3 with 0.3 seconds remaining to send the game into overtime.
But again, UW found a way to avoid a loss on a night when it wasn’t at its best.
“We’ve just got to get better,” Badgers coach Greg Gard said. “We know we’re marked.”