Western Illinois stuns Badgers in season opener


Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone was expecting there to be growing pains for this young Wisconsin team this season, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that predicted the result of Saturday’s season opener in Madison.

Western Illinois stunned No. 17 Wisconsin 69-67 at the Kohl Center on a night where last year’s record-setting team was honored.

Fans were treated to a pregame ceremony that saw a Final Four banner raised for a second straight year. But over the next two hours, they were given a harsh reminder about the uncertainly that lies ahead for these new-look Badgers.

Wisconsin struggled mightily on defense all night and failed to generate much offense in the second half. The result: the Badgers’ first loss to an unranked non-conference opponent at home since 2012, and it came at the hands of a team that went 8-20 a season ago and was picked to finish last in The Summit League this year.

Both teams were solid offensively in the first half, with Western Illinois carving through the UW defense and shooting 60.9 percent from the field. Meanwhile, the Badgers shot a respectable 46.7 percent as a team and also went 11-of-15 from the free throw line to take a 44-37 lead into the half.

Junior forward Nigel Hayes led the way with 17 points for the Badgers in the first half. However, he and the rest of the UW offense went ice cold in the second half.

Wisconsin shot just 8 of 32 from the field in the second half, including an abysmal 2-of-11 mark from 3-point range, and went just 5 of 10 from the charity stripe. The missed free throws in particular came back to haunt the Badgers in the end.

“In a two-point game, how huge do all those look?” head coach Bo Ryan said of his team’s missed throws. “They look pretty big.”

Though junior guard Bronson Koenig scored 12 of his 17 points in the second half, the rest of his teammates couldn’t seem to buy a shot down the stretch. Hayes scored no points in the second half, Zak Showalter went just 3 of 10 from the field and freshmen Charlie Thomas and Khalil Iverson combined to go 3 of 13.

Redshirt freshman forward Ethan Happ was a surprising non-factor after his stellar performance in Wisconsin’s exhibition win over UW-River Falls, scoring only four points in the loss to the Leathernecks.

“He played like a freshman. He tries, he’s working at it, he’ll have better games, but his feet weren’t real good and he really struggled with his feet right tonight,” Ryan said of Happ. “It cost us dearly, but he wasn’t the only one. He struggled moving his feet and that really cost us.”

Led by Koenig and Vitto Brown, the Badgers did make a final push toward the end of the game, reinvigorating an anxious Kohl Center crowd.

Wisconsin managed to tie the score at 67 late, but a foul on Iverson sent Garret Covington to the line with just over 10 seconds to play. Covington sunk both free throws to give his team the lead and Koenig’s game-tying attempt was off the mark, securing the stunning upset for the Leathernecks.

It was a painful loss for this young UW team, one that Ryan said shows just how far they have to go.

“Now you know why I was saying earlier. We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “But you guys thought I was saying the same old stuff. But I think you see now.”

The Badgers will get a shot at getting back on track Sunday against Siena, but the future suddenly seems more uncertain than ever for Wisconsin moving forward this year.

“We got a long way to go,” Ryan said. “We play again Sunday, we play again Tuesday, we’ll see what we can find.”