That’s how high Wisconsin’s win probability reached in the second half of its stunning upset loss to Nebraska on Sunday. That’s how close the Badgers came to winning the Big Ten regular season championship outright for the first time since 2015.
The Badgers’ odds should have felt considerably higher for the Huskers, who entered the day as 12.5-point underdogs and announced 15 minutes before tipoff they would be without their leading scorer, freshman guard Bryce McGowens, due to a wrist injury.
Win probability can be a fickle barometer at times, but it gives a decent assessment of the momentum of a game. When Nebraska took a surprising 30-18 lead in the first half, the Badgers still had over a 55% chance of winning. By halftime, Wisconsin’s win probability was up to a 68.1% mark despite trailing by four.
It seemed all but over for Nebraska when junior guard Trey McGowens was called for a flagrant two foul and ejected from the game when he hit Wisconsin sophomore guard Johnny Davis in the face on a layup — the latter left the game with a lower body injury.
Moments later, senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. was called for a technical foul upon looking at the referees implying he expected a foul call on his made shot. That gave Nebraska its eighth foul within the first four minutes of the half compared to one on Wisconsin. By then, the win expectancy reached 84.7% for the Badgers, and the game felt like it tangibly flipped as their lead soon mounted into double digits.
But on a day when it was without its leading scorer, lost another starter midway through the game, and was deep in foul trouble early on, Nebraska prevailed against all odds to beat the Big Ten’s top team and secure its first AP Top 10 win since 2014.
Despite Bryce McGowens’ absence, the Huskers came out fiery, inspired by their two-game road winning streak. They forced four turnovers against the risk-averse Badgers within the first four minutes and jumped out to a 10-3 lead off a triumvirate of layups.
The Huskers largely held steady throughout the first half, twice leading by 12 points, the second time after freshman guard CJ Wilcher made Nebraska’s first 3-pointer of the game with just under 8:00 remaining in the half. The Huskers were making their 2-point attempts and did not commit a turnover for the first 15 minutes of the game. Even as Wisconsin started to storm back to the tune of a 16-4 run, Nebraska had answers, holding on for a 40-36 halftime lead.
The Huskers jumped out to an eight-point lead early in the second half, but the flagrant on Trey McGowens that took both him and Davis out of the game, and the subsequent call on Verge, had the effect of tangibly flipping the momentum of the game. It led to a run where the Badgers scored 10 of 12 points on free throws. That was part of a greater 25-7 run that gave Wisconsin a 62-52 lead with just over 12 minutes remaining.
The Huskers could have let up with the score suddenly flipped away from home and much less to play for than their opponent. They didn’t.
Nebraska’s rise did not come as suddenly as its fall minutes before. Rather, the Huskers crept back into the game, the mounting anxiety only apparent in the rising inflection of the announcers’ voices.
Senior guard Kobe Webster made a 3-pointer with 7:05 to go to cut the lead to 66-62, but Wisconsin responded with five straight points including a 3-pointer from senior guard Brad Davison. With five-and-a-half minutes left, the Huskers embarked on an unfathomable 12-0 run that suddenly gave them a lead with thirty seconds remaining.
It started with a free throw from junior forward Derrick Walker then layups by Wilcher and Verge and a pair of free throws from Verge to again make it a one-possession game with 2:24 remaining. Wisconsin missed on the other end and Verge, hardly a long-range specialist, sank a 3-pointer to give Nebraska a new lead.
“He just made play, after play, after play,” Hoiberg said of Verge on his postgame radio show. “I could not be more proud of that kid for the way he has continued to battle.”
A long possession proved fruitless for the Badgers as they missed two shots. Verge then forced a shot with 44 seconds remaining, but Walker grabbed a massive offensive rebound, a rarity for Nebraska, to retain possession. Verge was fouled and calmly made both of his free throws to bring Nebraska to that three-point edge with thirty-seven seconds left.
Davison missed a three-pointer, the Badgers got an offensive rebound and Verge picked up his fifth foul as Wisconsin freshman guard Chucky Hepburn, a Nebraska native, shot a three-pointer of his own. He made just two of the free throws to cut the Nebraska lead to one before Wilcher missed a free throw attempt on the other end. Hepburn had a chance to repeat his heroics from earlier in the week against Purdue, but this time he missed the potential game-winning 3-pointer, and Wisconsin left its own court shocked and devastated on senior night.
Seven days earlier, the Huskers had done the same thing to Penn State in a far more convincing 23-point win and then beat No. 23 Ohio State in Columbus on Tuesday for their first Top 25 win in Hoiberg’s three-year tenure. The Husker coach, who was theorized to be on the hot seat as recently as one week ago, now has his highest win total in Big Ten play with four conference victories. It also marks the first time Hoibeg won three conference games in a row.
The Huskers overcame one starter missing the entire game and another missing most of the second half, questionable officiating decisions, an entire arena shouting profanities and a double-digit deficit against a Top 10 team, all leading to that seemingly insurmountable win probability in Wisconsin’s favor.
“That was an emotional game and fight through adversity,” Hoiberg said.
After a sloppy start, the Badgers reverted back to their nation-leading standards of only 8.6 turnovers per game in committing just nine. The Huskers lost the turnover battle and the rebounding battle (13-5) offensively, but prevailed by shooting 66.6% inside the arc and 53.7% overall. The effort was spearheaded by a masterclass performance from Verge who made 9-of-13 2-point attempts and finished with a game-leading 26 points and six assists.
Walker posted 15 points and seven rebounds, and Wisconsin was led by Davison’s 20 points. Davis, a National Player of the Year candidate, played just 11 minutes due to first half foul trouble and his injury in the second. Still, Bryce McGowens sat out the game after tallying 25 and 26 in Nebraska’s previous two games. Hoiberg said on his radio show that he’s hopeful he’ll be back for the Big Ten Tournament.
To further illustrate how Nebraska’s 74-73 win went against all conventional wisdom, Nebraska was previously 0-3 in one-possession games this season including those that went to overtime. Wisconsin had won 15 straight games decided by two possessions or less.
Wisconsin will now have to hope Illinois loses at home to Iowa to win the Big Ten outright. If Minnesota loses at Northwestern, which it is expected to do, Nebraska will avoid a last-place finish in the Big Ten standings for the first time since the 2018-19 season, when Tim Miles was its coach.
Either way, the Huskers will play in the Big Ten Tournament’s first round on Wednesday, March 9 in Indianapolis. With Hoiberg boasting a 1-30 road record entering the stretch, virtually nobody saw three straight road wins in Nebraska’s future. But the Huskers are now one of the nation’s hottest teams and could reach the NCAA Tournament with five more wins in a row away from home.