MADISON - On a night where the Badgers shot just 7-of-18 from the free throw line, it was fitting that Wisconsin's final chance to upend the No. 13 Michigan State Spartans came on a pair of free throws from freshman guard George Marshall. Even more fittingly, Marshall missed both shots and the Badgers (13-6, 4-2 Big Ten) fell 49-47 to the Spartans in the Kohl Center Tuesday night.
But Marshall's misses alone didn't cost the Badgers the game. The Badgers missed plenty of opportunities to stop their own offensive bleeding, and scored just three points in the final six minutes of the game. As a whole the Badgers shot just 29.6 percent from the field, including 22.2 percent in the second half. But in a game that came down to just one possession, all of those missed free throws continued to hang over the Badgers after the game.
"It's cost us games before and it obviously cost us today," senior forward Mike Bruesewitz said after the game. "We've got to get in the gym and just start knocking them down. It can't be an excuse anymore."
The Badgers are shooting just 61 percent from the free throw line this season, which puts them last in the Big Ten and is down 12 percent from their rate last season. Head coach Bo Ryan said that he can't take the shots for his team, and that there's only so much he can do to try and correct the problem in practice.
"We've got guys who are pretty good free throw shooters who just aren't making free throws," Ryan said after the game. "When you keep clanking them, the basket just keeps looking smaller."
And while Wisconsin's free throw performance might have been the final nail in Tuesday night's coffin, they missed plenty of other opportunities to upend the Spartans, who now own a four-game winning streak over the Badgers dating back to last season. Wisconsin's three-point shooting gave the Badgers a 28-27 lead at halftime, but their long-range shots stopped falling in the second half. The Badgers made just 2-of-10 three-pointers after the intermission, and couldn't make up much ground at all on the Spartans after they took the lead with ten minutes to play in the game.
"They ran us off the line. If teams start doing that we need to find ways to score otherwise," Bruesewitz said. "A couple times we drove to the rim and I think we just settled for too many inside jumpers. We've got to get Jared Berggren a few more touches, especially close to the bucket."
And while the Badgers held the Spartans to just 38.3 percent shooting as a whole, they didn't have any answers for Michigan State point guard Keith Appling or guard Branden Dawson, who combined for 37 points in the game. Appling in particular stung the Badgers throughout the game, shooting 6-of-17 from the floor, including 3-of-8 from behind the arc. Appling also converted a three-point and a four-point play, which foiled Wisconsin's plan of trying to force him to try for and miss low-percentage shots.
"I thought we did a pretty good job on him as far as trying to get him to work for his scores," Ryan said. "He's good with the ball. We knew that. We were trying to get him to shoot a low percentage."
Senior forward Ryan Evans and sophomore point guard Traevon Jackson in particular had off nights, with Evans shooting just 2-of-12 from the floor and Jackson making just 2-of-9 shots as well. Bruesewitz led the team with just 10 points, and Berggren scored just nine, including making just two free throws in eight chances. And while Ryan and his players didn't put the blame for Tuesday's loss on a specific person, Ryan said his team dug themselves into too deep of a hole by the end of the game.
"You can have a guy have an off night," Ryan said. "We had more than one guy having an off night and it's a one-possession game. That's frustrating because you know you had opportunities."
Up next, the Badgers will take on No. 12 Minnesota on Saturday in the Kohl Center. The Badgers will have a lot of work to do if they want to snap their two-game losing streak, but Berggren said he's certain the team is capable of snapping out of their offensive doldrums.
"We've just got to get in the gym and get some extra shots up," Berggren said. "We know we're all capable of heating up and getting out of this slump that some of us are in."