Wisconsin survives, meets Spartans in semis; Nick Ward feels 'great' in return
Chicago — There are no style points in the postseason, and that’s just fine for Wisconsin.
The Badgers hardly lit the building up on Friday afternoon, but got two late 3-pointers from D’Mitrik Trice to help hold off a surging Nebraska team and earn a 66-62 victory in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center.
All eight of Trice’s points came in the final five minutes, but it was his 3-pointer with 58 seconds to play and Wisconsin leading by two that put the game away for the fourth-seeded Badgers.
“I’m always confident,” Trice said. “Every shot that I shoot is going in no matter what. So, even earlier in the second half, I airballed a couple shots, one of them got blocked and one was just an airball. So just staying confident in my shot and seeing the ball go through was definitely a plus.”
Wisconsin (23-9) advances to take on Michigan State in the tournament semifinals at 1 p.m. on Saturday. The top-seeded Spartans beat Ohio State, 77-70, and will look to complete the season sweep of the Badgers after earning an eight-point win at Wisconsin in mid-February.
Cassius Winston scored 23 in that game while Nick Ward and Kenny Goins scored 12 each as Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ missed six free throws in the final minutes. Goins’ 3-pointer inside of two minutes clinched the Spartans’ victory.
“Yeah, that one went down to the wire,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “Goins hit the big three with about 30 seconds to go to take it from a three-point game to a six-point game. There's a lot of things — I'll go through the tape again tonight and catch up on that and look.”
If Michigan State gets a second win over Wisconsin it will come with a ticket to the Big Ten tournament championship game and a shot at a conference-best sixth tournament title.
But the Badgers will be no slouch. They’ve now won four straight and got past Nebraska getting only four points from Happ while turning the ball over 17 times.
“Obviously it's never easy,” Gard said. “We made it more difficult on ourselves at times than we needed to, but proud of our guys how we were able to rally at the end, make some shots, get some stops. … The nice thing about this is you get a chance to survive, advance and move on to the next, and quickly learn from this, put it behind us and get ready for Michigan State.”
The Spartans have played the Badgers nine times in the conference tournament, more than any other team. Michigan State leads the series, 5-4, after beating Wisconsin in the opening round last season in New York. The last time the tournament was in Chicago, Wisconsin beat Michigan State, 80-69, in overtime in the championship game.
Ward in the swing
For five games, Michigan State was forced to make up for 15.1 points and 6.7 rebounds — the production Ward has been bringing all season. But in a victory over Ohio State on Feb. 17, Ward suffered a hairline fracture in his left (shooting) hand that required surgery.
The junior was back Friday and it didn’t take long for him to show the hand is just fine as he nailed a mid-range jumper seconds after entering the game.
“It felt great,” said Ward, who came off the bench for just the second time this season. “I shot another one, but I had to rush it.”
Ward finished with eight points and two rebounds while shooting 3-for-4 in 14:24. He even blocked a shot and late in the game was able to take the ball in the low post and spin for a jump hook, one of his many moves around the basket.
“I'm just trying to get back in the swing of things and really integrate in the offense and stuff like that,” he said. “My rhythm is going to come back.”
Ward insisted he’s fine with coming off the bench behind Xavier Tillman but still expects to see his minutes increase, saying he feels like he’s “85 percent” when it comes to conditioning.
“Just really getting back in the swing of things,” Ward said. “My minutes are going to keep going up. They just want to see how I'm doing offensively.”
Kyle Ahrens' never-ending battle against his aching back continued on Friday as the junior played 18:04 but rarely stopped moving when he was on the bench.
Michigan State is assured two games in two days, and if it wins on Saturday, that means three games in three days, something Ahrens isn’t sure he’ll be able to manage. But, he’s giving it a shot.
“I’m trying to find ways to keep it loose and stuff, but toward this time of year with back-to-back-to back days it gets a little harder,” Ahrens said. “I know my chiropractor is coming up today to adjust me and get me right hopefully for tomorrow.
“I came ready for it. If I have to (sit) we still have the NCAA Tournament to think about, so just doing what I can, really.”
Winston was slowed by a sprained toe he said he hurt in the second half of last weekend’s victory over Michigan.
“Yeah, a little sprain on my big toe,” Winston said. “It was during the second half of the Michigan game and I finished that game with it. A couple days I couldn’t go (in practice) and then just rested a little bit, but now I’m able to move, so it’s getting better.”
… Michigan State is 3-0 against Ohio State this season. The Spartans are also now 5-3 all-time against the Buckeyes at the Big Ten tournament.
… The Spartans became the first school in Big Ten tournament history to win 30 tournament games (16 losses). It has won five tournament championships, the most of any conference team.
… Michigan State was the 15th No. 1 seed in Big Ten tournament history to win its opening tournament game. Overall, No. 1 seeds are 35-13 all-time.