Generally, when your best player goes down on literally the first play of the game with an ankle injury, your opponent shoots twice as many free throws as you, and your team commits 50% more fouls than the other team (thanks in part to some interesting officiating), you expect to lose and lose by quite a bit. But just like the B1G as a whole so far this season, the match-up between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Wisconsin Badgers was far from ordinary.
On the first play of the game, Andre Hollins curled around a screen took his patented sweet elbow jumper, nailed the first shot of the game, and then proceeded to land awkwardly on a Badger's foot and crumpled in pain. As a hush fell across the Barn and Hollins writhed in pain, Pitino quickly sent in Malik Smith and must have told his team to bare down and persevere without their leader. They answered with aplomb.
Maurice Walker was an unstoppable force in the first half, dominating on the block when Frank Kaminsky picked up two fouls before four minutes had elapsed in the game. Walker entered the game at the fifteen minute mark and proceeded to destroy the Badgers and score the next 12 Gopher points while invigorating the home crowd into a frenzy. When a Bronson Koenig three cut the Minnesota lead to two with under three minutes to play, it appeared the Gophers may lay another egg in the game's final 32 minutes as they did against Iowa. However, a Walker dunk and a layup from Joey King extended the lead to six at the half. Walker would finish the game with 18 points and 9 rebounds.
While the first half belong to Mo Walker, the second half was all Deandre Mathieu and Austin Hollins. While Mathieu was a solid 2-3 from the field in the first half, he dissected the Badger defense with a variety of floaters, jumpers, and shots over players with 15 inches of height advantage over the diminutive guard. He finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and a single turnover and was constantly penetrating the lane and causing absolute havoc for the Wisconsin defense.
Meanwhile, Austin Hollins not only turned around his game performance in the second half, but may have turned around his season. After struggling from the field in the first 6 games of the conference schedule, Hollins started the game 0-3 from the field. Then the second half happened. Hollins went 5-5 from the field in the second half and finished with 11 points, 3 assists, and 4 steals. Oh yeah, and he did this. With these two contributing and Malik Smith coming off the bench in replacement of Andre Hollins and shooting 5-9 from the field, the Gophers finished an astounding 58.9% from the field, including 4-of-7 from the three-point line.
While the Badgers got to the line 23 times and shot 82.6% from the charity stripe, Minnesota countered with a ridiculous 11-11 performance. The Wisconsin defense struggled to stop an opponent for the third straight game and settled too often for the outside shot, going 5-of-20 from the three-point line. Their defensive rotations often failed them and they had no answer for the physical Gophers on the boards, getting out rebounded 32-22.
Now, let's take a look at the big picture. Minnesota had arguably it's best all-around performance of the season without it's leading scoring for basically the entire game. While Wisconsin came into the game with a two game losing streak and struggling to find a defensive identity, the performance of Minnesota and it's bench was a display that has put the B1G on alert. This is a team to be reckoned with, who emerged from an absolute four game gauntlet with a 2-2 record. They played two of the top teams in the conference neck and neck for 60 out of 84 minutes, losing to Michigan State in East Lansing in overtime and getting rolled in the second half against the Hawkeyes in Iowa City. Consider they also only lost to conference-leading Michigan by three points in the first conference game for both teams. The Gophers appear to be climbing the conference standings and solidifying a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
On the other hand, for the Badgers it may be time to start panicking. For the third straight game, the Wisconsin defense was gashed for highly efficient offensive numbers and dropped a game to a supposedly inferior opponent. While two of their defeats in this time span were away from the Kohl Center, and it's never easy to win on the road in the B1G, Bo Ryan certainly can't be happy with the lack of defense and a three-game skid. The Badgers will look for answers against the Boilermakers in West Lafayette on Saturday. In the mean time, the Gophers will hope for a quick healing ankle for Andre Hollins and a continuation of the momentum into Lincoln in a match-up with the Cornhuskers on Sunday.