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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern falls short 71-63 against No. 15 Wisconsin

The second place team in the Big Ten by record saw just how far they have to go to get to the top spot.

In a battle for the top spot in the Big Ten, Northwestern proved that it is not yet at that level.

The Wildcats (12-4, 3-2 B1G) battled all day long but fell 71-63 to No. 15 Wisconsin (13-3, 4-0 B1G). The 15th-ranked Badgers closed the game on an 8-0 run in which the Wildcats went 1-of-8 from the field.

Shooting plagued NU all day, as the Wildcats shot just 43% from the field and 29% from beyond the arc. Wisconsin, on the other hand, shot 50% in both categories and also converted 20-of-26 from the charity stripe.

The Badgers were able to stay undefeated in Big Ten play thanks mostly to the heroics of Max Klesmit, who scored 24 points on an astounding 9-of-13 shooting. AJ Storr and Tyler Wahl also scored in double figures for the Badgers, and Storr alone had 13 after halftime.

For Northwestern, Boo Buie’s latest cosplay as Superman proved to be just short of what the team needed to pull off a second consecutive road win. Buie’s 22 points were the most on the team by far, but he didn’t score a single point in the final eight minutes. Meanwhile, Ty Berry, Brooks Barnhizer, and Nick Martinelli combined to shoot 10-of-24 for 25 total points. The bigs for Northwestern also struggled on the boards, with Matt Nicholson and Luke Hunger combining for just seven rebounds and six fouls.

With the Madison area dealing with over eight inches of snow, the play inside the arena to start the game was as sloppy as the roads outside of it. Wisconsin’s first four possessions included an offensive foul, a shot clock violation and a blocked layup. Except for some Buie floaters, Northwestern’s offense was mostly stagnant as well. Just five minutes into the game, the teams had combined for seven fouls and five turnovers, and Northwestern’s lead was 8-6.

The offensive lethargy continued to the first stoppage. When the first media timeout finally arrived over six and a half minutes into the first half, Northwestern was shooting just two for its last 10. Berry and Barnhizer were a combined 1-of-6, and the Wildcats were 0-of-4 from beyond the arc. The Badgers, meanwhile, were shooting efficiently, but five turnovers marred any momentum.

Substandard play on both sides continued after the break. When the under-12 timeout hit, Wisconsin had gone nearly three minutes without a made field goal, but was still scoring thanks to already being in the bonus. Meanwhile, it fell to Buie to bail out the Wildcats on their money-making end. He banked in a deep three to help give the Wildcats the lead, but an 11-10 game was no one’s idea of a sparkling offensive exhibition. Through eight minutes, the two teams combined for as many turnovers, eight, as made field goals.

It was only after that stoppage that either offense got some traction. For Wisconsin, the key was a scorching-hot Klesmit, who canned back-to-back triples to push the Badgers in front. On the Northwestern side, it was still the Buie and friends show: the graduate student had 13 of Northwestern’s 17 points through 13 minutes. Aside from Klesmit’s deep shots, the factor that put Wisconsin ahead was fouling: Northwestern had committed eight through 12 minutes, and the Badgers converted four of their six attempts from the charity stripe over that span.

Both the whistles and Wisconsin’s long-range sharpshooting continued to plague the ‘Cats. A moving screen call on Blake Preston led directly to a Connor Essegian three-pointer, pushing the Wisconsin lead to 24-19. From there, the lead snowballed thanks to Northwestern's sloppiness and a brilliant two-way stretch from Chucky Hepburn. By the time the dust settled and the under-four timeout mercifully arrived, Wisconsin had hit seven of its last eight shots and parlayed that into a 14-2 run, growing the lead to double digits.

The nearly three-minute scoring drought was finally snapped by a Barnhizer free throw, but Northwestern was unable to take advantage of the Badgers cooling off. The Wildcats hit just one shot from the field over the final five minutes in the half, but free throws did help chop into the deficit. Despite the early and late struggles, the Badgers were torrid in the first half, shooting 55% from the field and 57% from three-point land. The Wildcats were just 36% from the field, and 18% from deep; however, with Buie’s 15 first-frame points and 10 Wisconsin turnovers, Northwestern was down only 32-25.

The second half began not with sloppiness, but with lots of whistles sandwiching a wild shot. There were three fouls called on the Wildcats in the first two minutes, but a Luke Hunger three-pointer cut the deficit to four. The Hunger shot seemed to open the floodgates: both teams got more offensive traction than they had all game, and at one point Northwestern hit five shots in a row. By the time the under-16 arrived, Northwestern had already scored 12 points, and the Badgers’ lead was trimmed to 39-37.

The Northwestern fouling issues continued — it took Wisconsin just seven minutes to reach the bonus — but consistent drives by Martinelli and Langborg kept the Wildcats in it. However, Klesmit continued to cook the ‘Cats, with six straight from him keeping a buffer zone, and Wisconsin led 49-43 at the under-12.

However, Northwestern worked the boards offensively, and Ty Berry was able to convert an and-one to halve the lead right out of the break. The offensive fireworks seemingly couldn’t be stopped in the second half. It took Northwestern just 10 minutes to score 25 points, matching its first-half output, but Klesmit and Storr continued to feast offensively. The two combined for 18 points in the first 11 minutes after halftime, and five straight Klesmit points forced a Northwestern timeout with nine minutes to go. Thanks to Klesmit’s 8-of-10 afternoon through 30+ minutes, Wisconsin led 57-50.

The timeout was the right call, as it led to a quick 4-0 Wildcat run. Buie and Klesmit matched each other with 22 points apiece by the under-eight, but Wisconsin’s continued success at drawing fouls and getting to the line seemed to be the difference. With over six minutes to play, five different Wildcats had three or more fouls, and Wisconsin had converted 14 of its 20 free throws.

However, free throws were the only source of Wisconsin's offense. The Badgers went nearly five minutes without a made field goal, enabling Northwestern to stick right with them for the final eight minutes. Back-to-back turnovers by Wisconsin opened the door wide for Northwestern, and Berry was able to slip through it thanks to a three-pointer that seemed to scrape every part of the rim and backboard before finally falling. The shot tied the game at 61, setting up an incredibly dramatic final four minutes.

The basketball gods continued to favor the Wildcats, as Nicholson — shooting 53% from the charity stripe on the season — hit a pair to re-tie things at 63. Storr quickly responded with an incredible fadeaway over Berry, and a devastating miscommunication between Buie and Barnhizer led to two more Wisconsin free throws, this time from Storr.

Northwestern picked the worst time to go cold, and a three-minute field goal drought enabled Wisconsin to push the lead back to four. That drought produced a nearly two-and-a-half-minute scoring drought, and Northwestern’s inability to grab a rebound led to Hepburn sealing the game at the line. The Badgers ended the game by converting their free throws and winning the 50-50 balls, and the result was a 71-63 Northwestern loss.

The Wildcats will be back in action next Wednesday night, taking on Maryland at 8 p.m. CT.