MADISON, Wis. – Too many times this season Illinois has managed to create nail-biting drama at the finish line, tantalizing fans with close calls but delivering a 0-for-6 record in Big Ten play.
Three overtime losses. A crushing defeat at the buzzer. A growing pile of heartache.
That story line changed Friday night at the Kohl Center.
Absent was even a hint of drama. What remained, however, was that perfectly imperfect Big Ten record.
Playing its worst game of the season, the Illini (10-9, 0-7) missed a chance to break through against a Wisconsin team that looks likely to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
The Badgers (10-10, 3-4) methodically knifed through a broken Illini defense, scoring inside and outside en route to a 75-50 victory.
Illinois never had much rhythm on offense. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Illinois’ defense was shredded as Wisconsin had the Illini running in circles while the Badgers played catch inside and out. The result was a flurry of open layups and dunks at the basket or ball rotation that created uncontested 3-pointers from the perimeter.
The Badgers enjoyed a flashback to their glory days. The Illini go back to the drawing board after taking a considerable step backward.
Until Friday, Illinois’ most lopsided loss was 10 points. But this one got out of hand quickly as the Badgers shot 66.7 percent while opening an 11-point halftime lead. Then came a runaway second half.
Until Friday, Illinois had always responded when the opponent went on a run. But not this time.
What was the difference?
“Effort,” first-year coach Brad Underwood said. “Heart. They were a much better basketball team than we were tonight.
“But for the first time all year I didn’t feel good going into our locker room about the effort our guys gave and that is something I take a tremendous amount of pride in.
“When you go against extremely high IQ basketball players, an extremely good passing team, which they are, and you have guys who make mistakes, they will exploit those mistakes.
“A team that gets you deep into the shot clock, they wait until you make mistakes and we made mistakes. They just picked us apart.”
Leron Black scored 16 points and Trent Frazier added 11 for Illinois. But each also committed four turnovers. Mark Alstork finished with nine points and 10 rebounds and Gregory Eboigbodin had eight points and five rebounds.
But Mark Smith, Kipper Nichols and Aaron Jordan were scoreless. And even though Te’Jon Lucas was in uniform and available after serving a two-game suspension for a violation of team rules, Underwood never looked in his direction. Instead, he gave first-half playing time to seldom-used walkon Drew Cayce.
Wisconsin held a 17-12 lead when it started pulling away by scoring on eight straight possessions and 14 of 17 possessions to end the first half with a 43-32 lead. The Badgers shot 66.7 percent in the first half.
Ethan Happ, who had 16 points and 10 rebounds for Wisconsin, said it was good to end a three-game losing streak.
“The biggest thing was we played as a unit tonight,” he said. “It wasn’t one guy trying to do it all himself. It was one more pass and that’s how we need to play.”
Compounding Illinois’ problems was another haywire night at the 3-point line. The Illini made just 1 of 14 while Wisconsin was knocking down 7 of 19.
Wisconsin had great balance. In addition to Happ, Brad Davison was 10 for 10 from the free-throw line and led the Badgers with 18 points. Brevin Pritzl also had 16 points. And Khalil Iverson, who did most of his damage at the rim, finished with 13 points.
The Badgers also had 10 blocked shots, five by Nate Reuvers.
The Illini have a home game at 8 p.m., Monday, and this time the opponent will not miss the NCAA Tournament. The opponent is the ninth-ranked Michigan State Spartans, who earlier Friday put an 85-57 whipping on Indiana.