WASHINGTON — A smirk crossed Nigel Hayes’ face as he watched Thomas Bryant stumble to the court midway through the second half.
It was that kind of night for the Hoosiers.
Bryant, Indiana’s sophomore center, tried to drive around Hayes, Wisconsin’s All-Big Ten senior, in the low post, but instead of beating his man to the basket, Bryant tripped over his own feet and fell. Wisconsin, as it so often does in this matchup, dictated what Indiana could and could not have on Friday night.
In a 70-60 loss to the Badgers in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, the Hoosiers couldn’t command much.
Now, they return home to an uncertain future. A win over the Badgers could have returned them to the NCAA Tournament conversation. Instead, Indiana is left to wait on a potential National Invitation Tournament bid on Sunday, while rumors about the future of coach Tom Crean’s future in Bloomington continue to swirl.
After falling to the Badgers for the third time in as many tries this season — and for the 18th time in the last 20 meetings — the Hoosiers sat dispirited in their locker room, left to wait and wonder what’s to come of their future in the next 48 hours.
“We’re disappointed in the loss, definitely, but I don’t go back on what I said,” IU’s Juwan Morgan said. “I think we really are in our stride still. There’s a great basketball team in this team here and I feel like whatever tournament we get into, we’re definitely going to make something happen.”
Indiana (18-15) had an opportunity to do exactly that during its weekend stay in the nation’s capital. After throttling Iowa on Thursday with its best performance since January, IU couldn’t replicate that showing against the league’s top-rated defense.
Wisconsin struggled late in the season, dropping five of its final seven games as its offense stagnated and senior guard Bronson Koenig recovered from a calf injury. But on Friday, the Badgers looked once again like the program that has given the Hoosiers fits for years.
IU big men Thomas Bryant and De’Ron Davis combined to go 1-for-10 as they struggled to finish around the rim. But misses within five feet weren’t exclusive to those two.
It was also a team-wide problem that helped the Badgers create their initial separation late in the first half.
“You have to play through contact, OK?” Crean said. “When you’re going to play against a Wisconsin team, whether it was when Bo (Ryan) first came into the league, or whether it’s now, they’re going to put their chest into you. That’s what it is. … But we didn’t make those shots. It’s not the only time we’ve gone against contact. We didn’t make the shots, but we were right there. We were getting it in the paint. We also missed some jumpers we would make. I think we got a little frustrated because we didn’t make the close shots. It is what it is.”
Indiana went punch-for-punch with Wisconsin for the first 12 minutes of the night, with the lead changing six times. But the Badgers clamped down the rest of the half, then used an early second-half run to create the separation it needed to ride out the win.
The Hoosiers mounted resistance in the final three minutes of regulation, whittling what was at one time a 15-point deficit at the 8:14 mark to four points on a 3-pointer by James Blackmon with 1:21 to play. Bronson Koenig answered with a driving layup and Zak Showalter stripped the ball from Robert Johnson on the ensuing possession to help the Badgers take final control.
Koenig’s clutch runner with 48 seconds remaining capped a team-best 16-point performance for the Badgers, who placed five scorers in double figures.
Ethan Happ once again won the battle with IU’s bigs. Happ scored 16 points, while going 7-for-9 from the field. In three games this season, Happ has scored 53 points against IU and made 23 of his 30 shots from the floor.
James Blackmon Jr. paced Indiana with 17 points. Morgan added 14 points, Johnson scored 13 and Devonte Green posted 10 points off the bench.
After getting in front 20-16 at the 11:12 mark of the first period, Indiana managed only seven points the rest of the half. Wisconsin was only getting started — on both ends of the floor.
The Badgers’ defense was almost airtight, causing the Hoosiers to miss 10 shots — a maddening number of them within five feet — in the final 10 minutes of the half. On the other end, a 14-2 Wisconsin run late in the period helped the Badgers build their first-half lead to as many as nine points.
Wisconsin took a 33-27 lead into halftime, then used a 9-0 run early in the second half to extend its advantage to 14 points six minutes into the period.
Indiana continued to play catch-up the rest of the way, coming close — but ultimately not close enough.
“We missed a lot of shots that we’ve been making, especially around the bucket,” Crean said. “I know we got into the paint quite a bit, we just didn’t get as much out of there. But our guys didn’t flinch in the sense of coming back. We kept coming. Unfortunately, that last play Koenig made at the rim, that was an absolute dagger.”