By TOM LEA
IOWA CITY – Wisconsin sophomore Josh Gasser didn’t really know how else to react so he threw both hands up in the air and rocketed his right fist down with an emphatic hook.
Everything he and his team were planning to do to slow down sharp-shooting Iowa senior Matt Gatens was apparently checked at the Carver-Hawkeye Arena front door.
The 67-66 loss, Gaten’s career-high 33-point performance and a court storming collectively served as the dagger that squashed any hopes Wisconsin had of sneaking back into the Big Ten conference championship race.
“He got comfortable early,” Gasser, who scored 14 points while spending most of his night defending Gatens, said. “He hit a couple of 3’s early on and a couple of curl jumpers early. He never really looked back. You always think he’s going to miss a couple but he never really did.”
Gatens hit 7-of-10 shots from beyond the arc for the second-straight game and he finished the Badgers by knocking down two free throws with just over four seconds left that gave his Hawkeyes an insurmountable four-point edge.
That capped a 12-of-18 shooting exhibition and 33-point explosion, matching the most points any Badger individual opponent has scored on UW since Stephen Curry dropped 33 in UW’s ‘Sweet 16’ loss to Davidson in 2008.
“He made some incredible shots,” UW sophomore Ben Brust said. “You’ve got to give them credit. They hit some timely shots when we were making some runs. Its just part of the game and we’re going to just keep working.”
Wisconsin fell behind by 13 points in the early stages of the second half. That Iowa lead lingered around double-digit points until a 12-2 Wisconsin run, spearheaded by seven Rob Wilson points and five Brust points, cut the lead to 51-48 with just under 13 minutes to play.
That’s when Gatens dropped consecutive 3-pointers on back-to-back Iowa possessions to stymie any Badger momentum.
It was his night.
“One of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said. “Right from the beginning. He made seven in the last game so they were on him. They do a great job with scouting. He just pulled the trigger.
“Once he got going he was on fire.”
Ryan Evans, who scored 10 quick points for the Badgers to open the game, finished with 14. Gasser, Evans, Wilson and Jordan Taylor all tried defending Gatens, but none discovered a serviceable method to slow him down.
“As a shooter sometimes you get in those zones,” Gatens said. “Luckily for me it’s going over a few games. You get in that zone and don’t really care who’s on you or where they’re at.
“You just want to get the ball and put it in.”
During Iowa’s past two games — wins over ranked Indiana and Wisconsin squads — Gatens has shot 70 percent from beyond the arc. He’s scored 63 points and nearly single-handedly kept his Hawkeyes faint NCAA tournament aspirations alive.
If Iowa fails to reach the national tournament it has most likely aligned itself for a bid in the NIT, a feat somewhat impressive following Iowa’s rather slow start to open both the regular and conference seasons.
Ryan said after the game that he felt his team made things tough for Gatens throughout, but when he opened the contest with back-to-back 3’s on his first two shot attempts, all signs pointed toward Wisconsin enduring a long night.
“We were just going to him,” McCaffery said. “He has the green light to be honest with you. I don’t think I’ve ever told him, ‘Hey, that was a bad shot.’ I don’t ever want to put that into a shooter’s head.”
Wisconsin’s floor general, Taylor, struggled mightily Thursday night. He finished the contest with nine points — three of which came as the final horn sounded — on 4-of-8 shooting and a bandage above his left eye.
He also committed four turnovers, a number uncharacteristic for one of the most efficient players in the Big Ten. And he fell into foul trouble throughout, especially when he picked up his third personal just over one minute into the second half.
UW, collectively, committed 11 turnovers during the first 20 minutes of play as Iowa soared to a 43-34 halftime lead. Wisconsin didn’t shoot the ball poorly — it actually outshot Iowa from the floor — but it’s turnovers and sometimes-shoddy defense opened fastbreak opportunities and dunks for Iowa.
“Bad decisions,” Ryan said. “That’s why it’s called a turnover. I don’t think you can describe it any other way. Guys were anxious to make the great play rather than a good play. It’s part of the game, but usually for us it’s not.
“We need to make better decisions.”
If there’s a silver lining for a team without many answers to this Hawkeyes squad it’s that it continued to battle. Defensively, Wisconsin held Iowa scoreless for seven minutes down the stretch run of Thursday’s game before the Hawkeyes snapped the slump with four free throws, two each from Devyn Marble and Gatens.
Evans had an opportunity to chip away at Iowa’s four-point lead with approximately 10 seconds to play, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity. Following an Aaron White missed free throw, Taylor sprinted full court before finishing with a left-handed layup, cutting Iowa’s lead to two with approximately four seconds to play
That’s when Gatens confidently stroked two shots from the charity stripe to set an incredibly boisterous Carver-Hawkeye Arena off.
“We didn’t do the things we needed to do to get the game,” Brust said. “We’re just going to get back at it, learn from our mistakes and move on.”
Four Badgers (Evans, Gasser, Wilson and Brust) finished the night with double-digit scoring, but its negative assist-to-turnover ratio made it difficult for UW to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.
“That’s probably the thing that cost us the game,” Gasser said. “We just didn’t take care of the ball. Off those they got easy looks at the rim and a couple transition 3’s. Really, the only easy looks of the whole game were in transition off our turnovers.
“We didn’t do a very good job of protecting the ball, especially in the first half.”