MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes issued a frustration-filled speech to his teammates in the locker room following Wisconsin's five-point loss to Northwestern on Tuesday. The message, after the Badgers' third consecutive defeat, was about playing with more effort and doing some serious soul searching about what they wanted out of a season that had quickly slid backwards.
Five days later, the Badgers responded in a big way. Wisconsin secured its most significant victory this season, and certainly of the Greg Gard era, by defeating No. 4 Michigan State 77-76 in the final seconds on Sunday afternoon at the Kohl Center. Badgers forward Ethan Happ's layup with 10.2 seconds remaining gave the Badgers the lead, and Spartans forward Denzel Valentine missed the potential game-winning 3-pointer, sending the crowd into hysterics.
The Badgers played with grit and determination, as they had in so many other close losses. But this time, they finally figured out how to finish off their opponent. Seven of Wisconsin's nine losses had come by six points or fewer, including each of the past six defeats.
Hayes held up his end of the bargain, as did point guard Bronson Koenig -- the two mainstays from last season's national runner-up team. Hayes finished with 25 points and seven rebounds, while Koenig contributed 27 points. Koenig's 3-pointer brought Wisconsin to within 76-75 with 26.8 seconds remaining. Michigan State guard Eron Harris then stepped out of bounds while double-teamed in the backcourt with 22.7 seconds left, giving the ball back to Wisconsin.
Wisconsin avoided falling below .500 this late in a season for the first time since 1997-98. In the process, the Badgers (10-9, 2-4 Big Ten) also snapped their three-game conference losing streak, which had dropped them three games below .500 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2009.
The Badgers' streak of 17 consecutive seasons with an NCAA tournament appearance, which is tied for the fourth-longest active streak in the country, is almost certain to end barring a Big Ten tournament title, which would give them an automatic berth. But Wisconsin is building positive momentum as interim coach Gard tries to earn the position full-time during his three-month audition in the wake of Bo Ryan's retirement in December.
Spartans shuffle lineup
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo acknowledged he was still trying to find the right lineup combination following a surprisingly lopsided home loss against Iowa three days ago. That's an unusual circumstance for a top-five team midway through the regular season, but it was one Izzo felt necessary to address.
Izzo shuffled his rotation on Sunday, though he likely didn't gain better clarity as the Spartans try to push toward another Final Four berth. Harris started in place of Bryn Forbes at shooting guard and finished with 14 points. Deyonta Davis started over Gavin Schilling at power forward and tallied seven points. And Matt McQuaid took over point guard duties from Tum Tum Nairn, who didn't play Sunday because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot and could miss at least two weeks, Izzo said before the game. McQuaid didn't score and missed all three of his shots from the field.
Michigan State (16-3, 3-3) suffered an embarrassing 76-59 loss to Iowa in East Lansing, Michigan, on Thursday night. In that game, the Spartans committed 12 turnovers in the first 12 minutes. Izzo, it appears, will have to keep searching to set his rotation.
Valentine, a national player of the year candidate, played his third game since returning from a four-game absence because of a knee injury and looked like his old self.
He tallied 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists and displayed an array of offensive moves while also leading several fast breaks as the de facto point guard. Valentine made a running shot in the lane over Hayes to give Michigan State a 73-70 lead in the closing minutes. He then scored on an almost identical shot to put the Spartans in front 76-72. But he couldn't hit the biggest shot of the game and finished 8-of-19 from the field, including 4-of-8 on 3-point attempts.