No. 2 Michigan came into Saturday’s game well aware of the challenges that come with playing at Wisconsin, let alone against a Badger team that has uncharacteristically dropped three out of four, including its last two at home. After surviving the first half with a 2 point lead, Wisconsin roared back behind the force of Ethan Happ (26 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists) and the Badgers ended the Wolverines 17 game winning streak with a 64-54 win in Madison. Michigan lost for only the second time in 347 days.
The turnover bug doomed the Wolverines in the end. In the 17 games before this one, Michigan would generally follow up a turnover-laden first half with a strong, nearly mistake-free second half. Michigan had seven first-half turnovers Saturday, and things only got worse in the second half as Wisconsin was forcing the Wolverines to put up bad shots and hassled them in transition. Michigan finished the game with 16 turnovers (tied for a season-high set against South Carolina) on the afternoon, including a few in transition in the second half that allowed Wisconsin to stay in the game as it took a late lead. Quiet afternoons from Charles Matthews (5 points, 3 rebounds, 3 turnovers) and Ignas Brazdeikis (0 points) canceled out a strong day from Jon Teske (team-high 15 points, 7 rebounds.)
In true Wisconsin-like fashion, the game started slow. Jordan Poole scored Michigan’s first four points, but four minutes in and the teams were a combined 3 for 13 from the floor. As both sides began to find a groove, Michigan picked up offensively, capitalizing on Happ’s absences in the first half and taking advantage of some lengthy scoreless spells by Wisconsin.
In the final five minutes of the opening period, the Wolverines came up clutch. Jordan Poole made a layup, then got a block in the defensive end to keep Michigan up 17-16. Soon after, Jon Teske came up with a steal, and Zavier Simpson scored in transition to put Michigan up 19-16. The most critical stretch came when Poole completed an and-one, Teske blocked Happ, Simpson hit a corner 3 (Michigan’s first of the game with under one minute to play in the first half), and the Wolverines finished with another stop. That earned the Wolverines a 27-25 lead going into the locker room at half time and deflated a usually ravenous Kohl Center crowd.
The second half unfolded like a prize fight, both teams trading punches at every turn. For every clutch sequence, Michigan had a bad turnover or missed shot came back to erase it later. Teske and Simpson both did their best to try and keep the Wolverines in the game, but the Badgers blitzed the Wolverines after grabbing a lead off of a Happ layup with 7:35 to play. Wisconsin led the rest of the way as Michigan challenged but ultimately could not come back. Poor shot selection did not assist the Wolverines in their attempt to rally from the deficit.
John Beilein now drops to 5-17 against Wisconsin as Michigan’s coach and Beilein has seen some of his most talented teams lose in Madison before. Ultimately, this loss will not affect Michigan in its quest for the Big Ten championship, or the National Championship. The Wolverines now turn around and face Minnesota on Tuesday at home with a chance to respond coming off a loss for the first time this season. To paraphrase a common Beilein-ism, the Wolverines went 0-1 on the day but will reset come Sunday, looking to go 1-0 on Tuesday. While a shiny number one ranking would’ve felt like an accomplishment, this team has far loftier goals ahead of itself than a number in a poll midseason. Saturday did not feature many positives for the Wolverines, but a result like this will be a teachable moment for a young Michigan team as it goes through a challenging slate of games from now into February.