Johnny Davis came back down to earth Thursday night and his University of Wisconsin men’s basketball teammates didn’t get taken out by the hard landing.
In fact, Tyler Wahl, Brad Davison and others were there to pick up the sophomore guard. The result, a 78-68 victory over No. 16 Ohio State at the Kohl Center, ranks right up there with the No. 13 Badgers’ most encouraging victories on a résumé that continues to get more and more striking by the day.
Davis did a lot of heavy lifting during the first half of the regular season but he was held to a season-low 14 points on 4-for-18 shooting by the Buckeyes. Yet UW beat a really good opponent by double digits on a night in which its best player had his worst game of the season.
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Good sign? No, it was a great sign for Greg Gard’s team.
“I think what it shows you is this team is more than Johnny,” Gard said after the Badgers improved to 14-2 overall and 5-1 in the Big Ten. “And Johnny is obviously really important, he’s a great player, but I’ve thought all along we have some really good pieces and maybe they weren’t household names but as this team has continued to come together we’ve seen some of those guys kind of emerge.”
Davison has been solid this season, the Robin to Davis’ Batman act. The fifth-year senior guard picked a great time for one of his best performances of the season, producing a game-high 25 points on 7-for-12 shooting in 36-plus minutes.
Wahl, meanwhile, was arguably the best player on a court that included Davis and Ohio State junior forward E.J. Liddell, both of whom are projected to be first-round picks in the 2022 NBA draft. While he fell one point short of matching the career high he set four days earlier in a win at Maryland, Wahl finished with 20 to go along with seven rebounds, six assists and three steals.
The Badgers had scored 26 points and were averaging a healthy 1.18 points per possession when the under-8 minute media timeout arrived in the first half. They had built a double-digit cushion despite Davis having as many turnovers (three) as points at that point.
That UW’s offense didn’t stall with Davis struggling was one thing, but it was the manner in which the Badgers were scoring that offered even more hope as they were avenging an early season loss to the Buckeyes.
Led by Davison, UW finished 10 of 23 from 3-point range. It marked only the fourth time in 16 games this season that Gard’s team shot above 33.3% from beyond the arc.
The Badgers had won at Maryland on Sunday despite going 5 of 20 from long range. That dropped them to 29.3% on 3-pointers, on pace to be the lowest mark in program history.
Gard didn’t seem too concerned when that topic was raised after practice Wednesday. What matters most to him is whether his players are getting — and taking — good shots and he felt that was the case for the most part. He said he was encouraged that his team was finding other ways to score, whether it was in the paint, at the free throw line or in transition.
Davison spoke after his coach was done and used a line he’s been using for years — “Averages will average out,” he said — while adding that he thought it was a good sign that UW had been winning despite that poor shooting. “I think it’s more sustainable to win when you’re not making shots than if you’re winning just making shots,” Davison said.
UW assistant coach Sharif Chambliss at least acknowledged the obvious, that the Badgers would be in trouble if their 3-point percentage stayed so low. But even he was confident the shots would start falling.
“It has to go up,” Chambliss said. “There’s going to be some stretches where we need to make 3s. It’ll go up.”
The Badgers’ percentage climbed nearly a whole percentage point after one game, much to the chagrin of Chris Holtmann. The Ohio State coach certainly wasn’t banking on UW sophomore center Steven Crowl (30.3%) draining a 3-pointer on the opening possession of the game or Wahl, 0-for-17 in his first 15 games, connecting not once but twice from beyond the arc.
“We were playing off some guys — scouting-report situations — (and) there were some guys we were playing off of that had not shown they had made a ton of shots,” Holtmann said. “Sometimes that happens. Now we gave a couple of them too clean of looks. Davison made some tough ones and then we had a couple errors where we just were playing too far off guys. But give them credit for stepping up. Wahl making his first one, Crowl making one early that gave them some life.”
Did it ever. That one of the teams missed 12 consecutive 3-pointers to start the game and it wasn’t the Badgers was something that nobody could have seen coming; the Buckeyes entered the game shooting a sparkling 39.2% from beyond the arc but went 3 of 19 vs. UW.
The Badgers, meanwhile, were 7 of 13 by halftime and had matched their season high by the final buzzer, with six players connecting at least once from 3-point range.
“We always say missing shots is contagious but so is making shots,” said Davison, who was 4 of 6. “So when you see a couple go in, that breeds confidence individually and also as a team.”
Davis, who can score at all three levels, never did get in a rhythm from any range. But it was no big deal because UW’s complementary pieces carried the team this time.
After Ohio State (10-4, 4-2) pulled to within 61-55 with under 6 minutes remaining, the Badgers scored on their next five possessions to answer with a 13-2 run. None of those points came from Davis.
Crowl started it with a nice finish while being fouled, Davison and Wahl converted back-to-back three-point plays, Davison hit a 3-pointer and ended the surge with two free throws.
“It just shows you,” Davis said, “that not one player is the entire team.”
It showed something else, too: That this team is not only better than most people thought it would be — myself included — but that it has the potential to be special.