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MADISON – Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan didn’t need to be reminded that starting point guard Traevon Jackson hadn’t exactly been shooting the lights out from the floor this season. He also didn’t need to be told that the sophomore was going to work overtime at fixing his craft so he could succeed the next time an opportunity arises.
“You have to work at what you do,” said Ryan. “When you are presented with the moment, there can’t be any doubts. You have to be the one that says, “OK, we can do this.’”
As the shot clock hit one second with the game tied at 43, Jackson didn’t have any doubts he was going to get his shot off. As the ball rattled between the side and front of the rim and the backboard, he didn’t have any worries that it wasn’t going in.
And when he was mobbed by his teammates at half court following the final buzzer, Jackson had no problem saying how big Wisconsin’s 45-44 victory over No.12 Minnesota was for the psyche of the Badgers.
“This was a must-win game,” said Jackson, who scored UW’s final two baskets. “You got to take care of home court when you get a chance to.”
It was slowest game of the season in Big Ten play with only 51 possessions but it was the biggest for Wisconsin (14-6, 5-2 Big Ten) in terms of regaining a foothold in a tight conference race. It was even bigger for Jackson in his maturation process.
Jackson felt on top of the world 11 days ago as he and his teammates flew home from Bloomington, Indiana. Just days after scoring a career-high 14 points against Illinois, Jackson saw himself act with poise and confidence on the teaching clips from Wisconsin’s 64-59 victory over No.2 Indiana.
But in the last two games, two losses that sent Wisconsin from first to a tie for fourth in the conference, Jackson went 3-for-19 from the field, committed six fouls and beat himself up for not playing with the same confidence late in games that he shown at other times.
Of the eight players who had started for Wisconsin this season, Jackson had the worst shooting percentage (33.3 percent) and second worst from 3-point range (23.1 percent). Despite having the fifth-most minute average (23.8), Jackson had the second most fouls on the team, including four against Michigan State that gave Jackson a look of bewilderment each team the official blew his whistle.
That wasn’t the case against Minnesota, as Jackson scored six of his nine points in the final 7:02, committed only one foul and admitted he was hunting for his shot in a game where neither team led by more than two points the final 10 minutes.
“I felt that I needed to step up and hit the shots,” Jackson said. “I don’t have any fear.”
Wisconsin’s final two possessions was the definition of fearlessness. With a little over a minute remaining, Jackson crossed the face of Mbakwe and hit a pull up jumper in the face of Austin Hollins at the free throw line to the score for the sixth time.
The crossover worked so well on Mbakwe that he did it again one possession later, used a shot fake to get Mbakwe out of position, released the shot with less than a second left on the shot clock and gave UW the lead with 2.1 seconds left.
“A lack of discipline,” said Minnesota coach Tubby Smith of Jackson’s final shot. “He shot fakes (and) we jump out of the way, a mistake. That’s how you get beat when you make the mistakes we’ve been making. That’s a recipe for getting another loss, not being discipline defensively.”
It was just another late-game problem that continues to add up for Minnesota (15-5, 3-4), which has lost four straight to erase its first 3-0 conference start since the 1974-75 season.
After Mbakwe’s jumper with 3:53 remaining gave the Gophers a 43-41 lead, Minnesota didn’t hit another field goal on its final five possessions, which include a shot clock violation and an offensive foul by Andre Hollins (game-high 20 points) in the paint with 39 seconds left.
“I should’ve just gotten a shot up; that would’ve been the best,” said Hollins, who didn’t score in the final 6:28. “In that situation, you’ve just got to get the ball to the rim. It sucks to not have a shot attempt at all and they come down to score. It was a big momentum changer in the game. My decision-making on that play was very poor. Those are the little things that cost us the game.”
Minnesota had a chance to send the game to overtime after Mbakwe drew a foul with 1.7 seconds left, but was unable to shoot after injuring his right wrist on the play. In his place, the Badgers sent Rodney Williams – a career 57.9 free throw shooter - to the line to shoot Mbakwe’s attempts.
Williams made the first but was too long on the second, allowing Wisconsin to secure the rebound and dribble out the clock.
“That’s a tough situation,” Ryan said in reference to Williams’ free throws.
It wasn’t pretty on either side offensively for the entirety of the game, as the Badgers shot just 37 percent and the Gophers were worse at 34.8 percent.
But even with the game on the line, Ryan didn’t stop himself from putting the ball in Jackson’s hands, even though that role in the past week had been given to freshman point guard George Marshall.
“It was definitely a gut feeling,” said Ryan. “I’ve been coaching over 40 years with that.”
It was a gut decision that could have a huge ripple effect for Wisconsin.