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What We Learned: Minnesota Golden Gophers 59, Wisconsin Badgers 52

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers brought home the bacon away from the Barn on Thursday night.

In addition to picking up their biggest win of the season thus far, the Gophers won at the Kohl Center for the first time since the 2008-’09 season.

Minnesota’s signature 59-52 victory over the Badgers was characterized by early defensive dominance Wisconsin were unable to overcome.

The Gophers led by 15 at the break, and though Wisconsin assembled a few crucial scoring runs in the second half, Minnesota held the lead for the final 25:52 seconds of the game.

Let’s take a look at what we learned from Thursday night’s Big Ten matchup.

What We Learned:

Scoring is still an issue in Madison.

Badger fans, I know you’ve heard this one before.

However, the scoring woes for Greg Gard’s bunch come as a bit of a surprise compared to last season.

Lengthy scoring droughts and offensive deficiency plagued Wisconsin last season, partly due to an inexperienced roster.

This season, preseason All-American Ethan Happ is surrounded by vastly improved guards. Happ is also noticeably more comfortable producing under double-teams.

Nevertheless, painful scoring droughts are inescapable for Wisconsin. Tonight, a hand full of inept offensive stretches cost the Badgers a victory.

Frequently, when Wisconsin has trouble scoring, it comes as a result of playing out-of-sync to begin games. Thursday night was a different story.

The Badgers converted 3-5 shots from the floor to build an early 6-2 lead. From there, Gard’s team looked discombobulated at best for the remainder of the first half.

Wisconsin went over nine minutes without any points. After finally putting the ball in the bottom of the net, the Badgers had two separate stretches of more than 3:30 in which they didn’t score.

The Badgers trailed 29-14 at the break, representing their lowest-scoring half of the season.

Wisconsin wasn’t great on offense in the second half, but it was good enough. If not for the atrocious first half, the Badgers most certainly would have had an opportunity to steal a victory.

This is especially the case given Wisconsin still managed to trim the deficit to two in the closing minutes, despite the early offensive woes.

Has Greg Gard cut the situational free throw shooting portion out of practice?

The successful brand of Wisconsin basketball Bo Ryan built was headlined by consistent free throw shooting, an expectation Gard’s team isn’t in the realm of satisfying.

Forget the cold start for the Badgers, Wisconsin still could have won this game if it knew how to knock down clutch free throws.

Minnesota played extremely efficient defense in the first half, resulting in zero free throw attempts for the Badgers.

In the second half, the Gophers got into foul trouble early. Wisconsin had plenty of opportunities to score with the clock stopped, and it couldn’t take advantage. Overall, the Badgers went 7-17 from the line.

Keep in mind, most of these free throws occurred in crucial, momentum-shifting circumstances.

“It’s that simple,” Happ said during his brief post-game press conference.

Well, Ethan, it doesn’t appear to be that simple for you. Even if Happ shot to his average of 52 percent from the line, the game could have played out differently. Instead, the senior forward made 1-7 free throw attempts.

The game escalated to the point where Minnesota fouled Happ any chance it got, just to put him at the line. One has to assume more teams are going to do this moving forward if Happ doesn’t establish the ability to make a few free throws in a row.

Otherwise, another veteran, Khalil Iverson converted only 1-4 attempts from the stripe.

Completely falling apart from the line is concerning enough alone. It is even more worrisome considering the majority of the Badgers’ freebee misses came from upperclassmen, who have been in similar situations countless times.

Wisconsin is a good team, and it will likely make the NCAA Tournament. The Badgers aren’t going to make any noise when they get there if they can’t make vital free throws though.

Despite Wisconsin’s ugly game, the Gophers deserve all the credit.

Wisconsin’s underwhelming offensive effectiveness had a lot to do with outstanding defense by Minnesota.

Especially in the first half, the Gophers were quick to the ball defensively. Happ got to Minnesota a bit, but the Gophers did an exceptional job of keeping him in check for the most part.

Wisconsin didn’t go down without a fight. The Badgers made a few pushes to regain the lead in the second half. With the Madison faithful shaking the hardwood, the Gophers always had an answer.

The Badgers went on a 9-0 run early in the second half to get back within striking distance. It seemed as if Wisconsin finally found its rhythm, and wasn’t going to look back.

A few minutes later, Brock Stull silenced Wisconsin’s crowd by nailing two consecutive 3-pointers, giving Minnesota a 12-point lead.

The Badgers crawled within one bucket during the final two minutes after D’Mitrik Trice made a clutch jumper. Amir Coffey provided a timely response, knocking down a floater of his own.

Minnesota then induced two straight turnovers, and that was all she wrote.

The Gophers’ second half wasn’t nearly as impressive as the opening 20 minutes, but Pitino’s squad made shots and played good defense when it needed to.

That is all one can ask for. The victory is all the more impressive considering leading-scorer and rebounder Jordan Murphy fouled out with nearly four minutes remaining.