MADISON, Wis. — Few teams know how hard it is to win in the Kohl Center more than Northwestern, which opened the University of Wisconsin’s facility with a one-sided loss to the Badgers on Jan. 17, 1998.
Since then, the Wildcats lost their next 12 in the building. They finally put that dubious streak to rest Wednesday night with a 65-56 upset of the 14th-ranked Badgers.
“Obviously, this is a tremendous, tremendous win for our program,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “I have so much respect for the Wisconsin program, and I know how tough it is to play in this building. A few years ago, I brought a (Duke) team in here that won the national championship, and we got our tails kicked, so for us to be able to come in here and get a win is special.”
Fifth-year senior guard Drew Crawford led the way for Northwestern (11-11, 4-5 Big Ten). He scored 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting while knocking down three 3-pointers. Due in large part to Crawford’s marksmanship, Northwestern shot 48 percent from the field.
“Drew just put us on his back,” Collins said. “He was a man tonight, and I’m so very proud of the player he’s becoming.”
Northwestern was down by one at halftime, but Crawford’s 3-pointer with 11:41 remaining tied the game at 34. The basket kicked off an 18-3 run for the Wildcats, who hit three more from long range and went ahead 44-37 on Crawford’s jumper with 8:22 remaining.
The Badgers’ only points during that stretch came on a free throw from forward Nigel Hayes and two by guard John Gasser. Wisconsin missed five shots from the field during that sequence — three of them from beyond the arc.
“It just seemed like if they bounced it off the floor, it was going to go in,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said.
A late surge saw the Badgers (17-4, 4-4) get within six during the final minute, but Northwestern made three of four free throws in the final 30 seconds to close it out.
“We played this team a month ago, and it was 40-14 (Wisconsin) at halftime,” Collins said. “In one month’s time, we’ve become a very tough group, and we’ve had to become tough because we’ve had a hard time scoring, we’ve had a hard time with certain things, so we’ve had to win with our defense.”
After letting Wisconsin shoot 32-for-58 (55.2 percent) in the first meeting this season — the Badgers’ 76-49 victory on Jan. 2 in Evanston, Ill. — Northwestern clamped down and held the Badgers to a season-low 26.3 percent from the field and 14 points in the paint.
“I don’t even know what to say,” said guard Ben Brust, who led the Badgers with 21 points. “We got a lot of wide-open looks, but to throw the ball into the post and get a wide-open kick-out only to get an airball is ridiculous. It’s just unacceptable.
Much had been made of Wisconsin’s more explosive offense this season — the Badgers were averaging 75.2 points per game entering play Wednesday — but against Northwestern, the Badgers looked like the offensively challenged squad that struggled to generate points in years past.
After hitting two 3-pointers to open the game, the Badgers got cold quick, missing their next 10 attempts, but they still held a 23-22 lead at halftime. They entered a deep freeze, though, after the break. After going ahead by six on Brust’s 3-pointer with 16:04 to play, they went 1-for-3 from the field and missed three of five free throws before Crawford’s game-tying 3-pointer.
“When he starts knocking those down, he can be deadly,” Brust said.
Wisconsin got within single digits twice in the final minutes and cut the lead to six late, but the Wildcats closed out their first victory in Madison since Feb. 21, 1996.
“Since I’ve been here, we never won,” Crawford said. “I knew it had been awhile, so it feels great. Wisconsin is an unbelievable team, and they embarrassed us last time, so it feels good.”
The Badgers lost for the fourth time in five games after starting the season 16-0. Wisconsin plays host to No. 24 Ohio State on Saturday.
“We have to take it one game at a time still and try to knock ’em out,” Wisconsin point guard Josh Gasser said. “You have to go into each game preparing to win.”