In search of better play, No. 14 Wisconsin now faces the uncertain status of senior forward Tyler Wahl as the visiting Badgers get set to meet Illinois on Saturday at Champaign. Ill.
Wisconsin played without Wahl for most of Tuesday night’s 63-60 Big Ten home win over Minnesota after he sprained his ankle in the first half.
Wahl’s status for Saturday’s conference game at Illinois is to be determined, as the Badgers search for a better brand of basketball against the Illini.
In squeaking past Minnesota, which sits at the bottom of the early conference standings, Wisconsin (11-2, 3-0) hit 43.6 percent of its shots from the field and was dominated 40-24 in the rebounding battle.
The Badgers were saved by a defense that forced 20 turnovers, including the game-clinching steal by Chucky Hepburn as the Golden Gophers tried to set up a potential game-tying 3-pointer.
“As I told them in the locker room, good teams find a way when you’re not clicking on all cylinders and sputtering at times,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “Good teams dig down and find a way to get it done.”
The absence of Wahl provided its challenges. He entered as the team’s leading scorer (13.2 points per game) and its second-leading rebounder (6.4). He played just nine minutes and scored two points before the injury. He tried to come back for the second half but couldn’t return.
Without Wahl, Steven Crowl scored a team-high 17 points and Hepburn added 16. Connor Essegian came off the bench to score 11.
Hepburn’s team-leading fifth steal came moments after Gard instructed his team to foul in order to keep Minnesota from trying a 3-pointer.
“It’s one of those where you can either steal it or foul,” Hepburn said. “I stole the ball.”
While the Badgers survived, Illinois (9-5, 0-3) took another step backward in what has been a puzzling season. On Wednesday, the Fighting Illini dropped a 73-60 decision at Northwestern.
On an evening when they held the Wildcats to 32.1-percent shooting and earned a 38-35 rebounding edge, the Illini lost because they couldn’t stop fouling. They sent Northwestern to the line a whopping 40 times, and the Wildcats made 32 of those attempts.
However, Illinois coach Brad Underwood was more concerned with his team’s shot selection. The Illini made just 23 of 58 attempts (39.7 percent) from the field, including 8 of 28 (28.6 percent) from the 3-point line.
“We shot more stepback, sidestep, fadeaways — a shot that we’ve never practiced one time in our facility, and that’s what we shoot,” Underwood said. “You can’t shoot stepback fadeaways. You’ve got to be tough enough to … drive the ball to the mouth of the rim and pass it or score and get fouled.”
Matthew Mayer scored 17 points for Illinois, going over the 1,000-point mark for his career. Coleman Hawkins added 10 but made only 4 of 11 attempts from the field. Jayden Epps came off the bench to score 11 points.
Freshman guard Skyy Clark, a consensus four-star recruit who was averaging 7.0 points per game, announced Friday he was taking a leave from Illinois due to family reasons.
The Illini own a 115-88 lead in the all-time series with the Badgers, including an 80-67 win last Feb. 2 at Madison, Wisc.
–Field Level Media