Wisconsin coach Greg Gard walked off the Kohl Center floor on Saturday afternoon feeling confident in his basketball team.
Wisconsin, having lost five of its last six games, had just capped off its second consecutive solid practice.
Gard believed if the Badgers took that energy and execution to the court against rival Minnesota they would have a great chance to close the regular season with a critical victory.
Gard’s assessment was spot on as Wisconsin stayed within striking distance over the first 20 minutes and then, led by senior guard Bronson Koenig, asserted itself in the second half and rolled to an impressive 66-49 victory.
The Badgers (23-8, 12-6 Big Ten) snapped a three-game losing streak and secured the #2 seeding and double bye in the Big Ten tournament.
Wisconsin finished tied for second with Maryland (24-7, 12-6) but owned the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Badgers, who finished two games behind first-place Purdue (25-6, 14-4), open at 6:30 p.m. (Eastern) Friday in the quarterfinals against an opponent to be determined.
Minnesota (23-8, 11-7) saw its winning streak end at eight games and lost to UW for the seventh consecutive time. The Gophers, who had scored at least 80 points in each of their last four games, will be seeded fourth in the league tournament.
Koenig, who sat the final 14 minutes 40 seconds of the first half after picking up his second foul, scored all 17 of his points in the second half when the Badgers outscored Minnesota, 39-20. He hit 5 of 7 three-pointers to lead UW’s comeback.
Senior Nigel Hayes added 12 points, six rebounds and three assists.
Senior Zak Showalter added 12 points and five rebounds.
Ethan Happ, who had averaged 7.7 points in Wisconsin’s previous three games, scored eight in the first half. He missed his first five shots but finished 4 of 12 and contributed nine points, 13 rebounds and five assists.
Freshman guard D’Mitrik Trice scored eight points. Half came on a four-point play to give UW a 44-35 lead with 12:24 left.
UW made just 6 of 16 free throws but hit 8 of 10 three-pointers and 13 of 26 shots overall after halftime.
Junior guard Nate Mason scored 11 points in the first half to help the Gophers build a 29-27 lead. But he finished with only 17 and made just 8 of 20 shots.
Minnesota shot a respectable 42.3% in the opening half (11 of 26) but went 7 of 30 in the second half (23.3).
Koenig and Brown both picked up two fouls in the first 6:38 of the first half.
Brown returned with 8:45 left in the half and a hit a critical three-pointer during a 7-2 run to help UW pull within 20-19 with 6 minutes left.
Koenig sat the final 14:40 of the half but UW’s deficit was only 29-27.
The Badgers took a 25-24 lead on Happ’s basket inside but they made just 1 of 5 shots down the stretch and Happ missed two free throws.
UW, just 2 of 8 from three-point range in the first half, came out firing daggers in the second half.
Koenig hit 2 three-pointers, Hayes added one and Showalter added another as UW hit 4 of its first 5 three-point attempts. Showalter’s three-pointer gave UW a 40-33 lead and led to a Minnesota timeout with 13:58 left.
After back-to-back turnovers near the basket, UW put on another surge and scored eight consecutive points to turn a 40-35 lead into a 48-35 advantage with 11:31 left.
Trice buried a three-pointer, was fouled, and hit the free throw for a 44-35 lead.
After Minnesota failed to score, Brown found Trice for a lay-in.
After another Minnesota miss, Koenig found Brown for a thunderous dunk for the 48-35 lead.
Timeout Gophers with 11:31 left.
The lead was down to 51-45 when Minnesota’s Reggie Lynch (two points, eight rebounds, five blocks) was called for charging when he drove over Trice with 5:20 left.
That led to a drive by Showalter for a 53-45 lead. After the Gophers failed to score on two trips, Hayes hit a tough turnaround jumper and was fouled with 3:30 left.
Hayes missed the free throw but Wisconsin’s lead was 55-45.
After Mason missed on a drive, Koenig hit a three-pointer for a 58-45 lead. Mason scored on a drive but Koenig hit another three-pointer to push the lead to 61-47 with 2:34 left.
After Jordan Murphy (six points, five rebounds) hit two free throws for the Gophers, Koenig buried another triple to push the lead to 64-49 with 1:54 left.
Wisconsin’s losing streak was over. Minnesota’s winning streak was over.
Time for the Big Ten tournament.