CHICAGO — The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team arrived at the Big Ten tournament with a collection of nine losses by single digits, almost all of them leaving the Badgers playing the what-if game afterward.
There was plenty of that going on Saturday afternoon at the United Center, even though this defeat fell in a different category.
Senior point guard Cassius Winston finished with a game-high 21 points and six assists as No. 6 Michigan State moved one step closer to sweeping the regular-season and tournament titles with a 67-55 semifinal victory over No. 19 UW.
For the Badgers (23-10), who got 20 points from senior center Ethan Happ, the autopsy of their first double-digit loss of the season wasn’t very complicated: They struggled to put the ball in the basket from wherever they were shooting it.
“Brutal,” sophomore guard Brad Davison said after UW shot 35 percent overall from the field and a horrendous 11 percent from 3-point range. “There were a lot of good looks, really good looks that we missed. Early on, in the middle of the game and late in the game.”
Xavier Tillman added 17 points and Kenny Goins added 13 points and 12 rebounds to help send the top-seeded Spartans (27-6) into the final against Michigan.
Goins made four 3-pointers, including three early in the game to help Michigan State take control from the opening tip. The Spartans made eight of their first 10 shots to jump out to a 20-6 lead and expanded that cushion to 17 points later in the first half.
“Starting in a hole, it’s kind of hard to dig out against the elite teams,” UW redshirt freshman wing Kobe King said, “and Michigan State is one of the best teams in the country.”
King was one of the few bright spots offensively for the Badgers, finishing with 13 points.
Overall, the numbers were, as Davison said, brutal. UW went 2 of 19 from 3-point range, missing its first seven attempts and its final nine.
The Badgers may have even been able to survive the poor perimeter shooting had they finished better closer to the basket. They went 20 of 39 in the paint, including 16 of 27 at the rim.
While Nebraska sent aggressive double teams at Happ when he got the ball in the post, Michigan State chose to play him and others one-on-one. The Badgers outscored the Spartans 40-22 in the paint, but that disparity should have been greater because Happ, senior Khalil Iverson and sophomore forward Nate Reuvers combined for too many misses from point-blank range.
“I feel like we were getting good looks, just maybe rushing it when we got in there and not being patient,” Iverson said. “Maybe expecting to get fouled and the calls not necessarily getting called. We’ve just got to do a better job of finishing.”
UW has now lost to Michigan State seven consecutive times since a one-point victory at the Kohl Center on Jan. 17, 2016, Greg Gard’s first signature victory.
One common thread? The Badgers haven’t shot well from beyond the arc, going 34 of 136 (25 percent) in those defeats.
“Against bigger, physical teams,” Gard said, “you make 3s and it spreads the floor.”
After trailing for the entire game — by double figures, for the most part — UW climbed within 49-43 after Iverson hit a fadeaway jumper in the lane with 9 minutes, 37 seconds remaining.
But Goins answered with his fourth 3-pointer, and a missed free throw by Reuvers began a stretch of seven consecutive empty possessions for the Badgers.
The sixth possession in that scoring drought, which lasted over 7 minutes, was a perfect illustration of how the game went for UW: Aleem Ford missed an open 3-pointer from the right corner, D’Mitrik Trice missed one from the top of the key and Happ couldn’t finish from point-blank range.
Three good looks sandwiched around a pair of offensive rebounds, but no points for the Badgers.
“There were a lot of things that we could have done better defensively,” Happ said, “but it all kind of goes back to making shots and finishing around the rim.”
NO. 10 MICHIGAN ST. 76, MINNESOTA 49: In the other semifinal, Isaiah Livers scored a career-high 21 points, and Michigan closed in on a record third straight Big Ten tournament championship.
The third-seeded Wolverines (28-5) took control with a big run in the first half and put the game away in the second. Amir Coffey led Minnesota (21-13) with 14 points.