Wisconsin back in Big Ten Championship

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

Michael Flowers would have made a great cornerback.

Flowers intercepted a pass intended for Drew Neitzel with 30 seconds left, and his driving layup was the difference in Wisconsin's 65-63 victory over Michigan State on Saturday that sent the Badgers to the Big Ten title game. Well, Flowers' strip and score and a whole bunch of fouls.

The Badgers are just happy to keep playing after rallying from 12 down in the second half. They reached the Big Ten tournament championship for a second straight year, and the fourth time in five years.

Wisconsin (28-4) will play 10th-seeded Illinois, which needs to win the title to get an NCAA bid. The Fighting Illini beat Minnesota 54-50 in the second semifinal.

Wisconsin has now won nine straight, and 22 of 24.

"I don't think words can really describe what the guys did in the comeback," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "Probably the best way to describe it is to put a DVD on, watch it again and make your own observations."

The Spartans (25-8) certainly have their thoughts about the outcome, but they're not fit for the public. They were in foul trouble from the start of the game, averaging a foul a minute at one point in the first half. Leading scorer Raymar Morgan, and big men Goran Suton, Drew Naymick and Idong Ibok all fouled out, and Isaiah Dahlman was the only one of the 12 Spartans who played who didn't get at least one foul.

Michigan State had more fouls (14) than field goals (11) in the first half, and Izzo was forced to cobble together lineups that rarely are seen outside of practice.

Despite all that, Neitzel and freshman Kalin Lucas not only kept the Spartans in the game, they almost pulled off the victory. Neitzel, who has had an up-and-down year, had his second big game in a row, leading all scorers with 26. Lucas had 18.

"For [Neitzel] to play the way he did the last two days, I've always said good things happen to people who work hard and stick to it," Izzo said, choking up. "I think he deserved what he got as far as his play. I don't think he deserved what he got as far as the game went."

Neitzel converted a three-point play, and Lucas sandwiched two jumpers around a free throw to give Michigan State a 63-61 lead with two minutes to play. Marcus Landry tied it with a pair of free throws with 1:41 left.

After a Wisconsin turnover, the Spartans were trying to get the ball in Neitzel's hands. But Flowers, a member of the Big Ten's all-defensive team, read the freshman point guard perfectly, stepping in and grabbing Lucas' pass before it got anywhere close to Neitzel.

"I knew they were probably looking for Drew Neitzel," Flowers said. "If he doesn't have the ball, he can't score, so I over-covered him."

Flowers took the ball in for the easy layup, and Wisconsin had a 65-63 lead with 27 seconds left.

The Spartans were hoping to get the ball to Neitzel again, but Wisconsin's stingy defense wasn't giving them anything. Lucas finally put up a layup, but it rattled off the rim and Brian Butch grabbed the rebound. Michigan State got one more chance after Jason Bohannon missed a pair of free throws and Travis Walton got the rebound, but Neitzel had the 6-foot-11 Butch in front of him and his 3-pointer bounced off the rim.

"We were down [12], and we were saying, 'It's going to come on the defensive end,' " Butch said.

Butch led the Badgers with 19 points, and Landry had 18. Joe Krabbenhoft had his fourth double-double of the year with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Wisconsin is now 11-3 against Michigan State since Ryan arrived in 2001, including two wins this year.

"Right now, we're trying to be the most opportunistic team in the country," Ryan said. "We don't care who gets [the ball] or where, but if we can get within 15 feet in, you've got a better shot at getting to the free throw line."

Wisconsin wasn't making its free throws early, and the frequent stops-and-starts seemed to keep the Badgers from getting into any kind of rhythm. Despite Naymick and Suton picking up their third fouls in the first three minutes of the second half, the Spartans opened with a 10-2 run that put them up 39-29 with 15:26 to play. They would later push the lead to 53-41 on 3-pointers by Neitzel and Lucas and a pair of free throws from Morgan.

But things unraveled in the 56-second span from 6:06 to 5:10 when Ibok, Naymick and Suton all fouled out. The Badgers made six of seven free throws, and Butch added a 3-pointer to pull Wisconsin to 55-54 with 4:23 to play.


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