Western Illinois Shocks #17 Wisconsin on the Road to Open the Season, 69 – 67

Garret Covington put up 16 points on opening night to help lead the Western Illinois Leathernecks to the upset victory over the #17 Wisconsin Badgers, 69 - 67.
Garret Covington put up 16 points on opening night to help lead the Western Illinois Leathernecks to the upset victory over the #17 Wisconsin Badgers, 69 – 67.

Last season, the Wisconsin Badgers advanced to the National Championship game before losing to Duke. They have a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate on their roster, in Nigel Hayes, and are ranked 17th in the nation to open the season.

Their opponent on opening night inside the Kohl Center? Western Illinois. The Leathernecks finished last in the Summit League standings a season ago.

On paper, this game was a no-brainer. But the good thing about these games is you actually have to play them to find the outcome, and anything is possible.

Western Illinois fought back from a nine-point deficit at half time, held on down the stretch, hit their free throws when they mattered most, and pulled off the first major upset of the 2015-16 season with their 69 – 67 win over the Wisconsin Badgers.

The Leathernecks came out with a purpose in the first half, making their first three shots from the field and opening on a 7 – 2 run in the first two minutes. Following that run, Wisconsin went on an 8 – 2 run of their own, headlined by five points from Zak Showalter, and they took a slim 10 – 9 lead into the first media timeout.

Out of the break, Hayes would get hot from the field, scoring five straight points for the Badgers to keep them constant with the Leathernecks who always had an answer. As the first half wore on, neither team could gain any separation from one another. The largest lead before the under-8 media timeout for either team was 4 points.

Wisconsin came out of the media timeout energized, and it looked as though they were going to put some separation between themselves and Western Illinois. They went on an 11 – 2 run, thanks to some timely free throw shooting, to stretch their lead to 8 with four minutes left in the half. J.C. Fuller hit a jumper to halt the Badgers’ run.

Jalen Morgan and Jabari Sandifer hit back-to-back jumpers for the Leathernecks with just under 2 to play, cutting the lead to just 3. Cold-shooting from there on out allowed Wisconsin to stretch the lead back to 7 before the half was out.

After a back-and-forth opening half, Wisconsin held a 44 – 37 lead.

To open the second half, Wisconsin went ice cold from the field, not making a field goal until after they took a timeout at the 16:5 mark. That allowed Western Illinois to erase the 7-point deficit, thanks to baskets from Fuller, Tate Stensgaard, and Brandon Gilbeck.

Over the next eight minutes, both teams would go back-and-forth, much like the first half saw them do. Whenever one team would make a move, the other had an answer. Wisconsin got the lead up to four, but the Leathernecks were hanging around.

As the game wore on, an upset became more and more of a possibility. With just over 8 minutes to play, Western Illinois kicked it up a notch.

De’Angelo Bruster made his presence felt with a three-point jumper of his own. Then, in transition, Sandifer made a layup of his own to stake Western Illinois to a five-point lead.

They would stretch the lead to 8, at 64 – 56, and kept the Badgers off the scoreboard for over 3 minutes. The Badgers would slowly chip away at the lead, eventually tying the game at 67-all with two minutes on the clock.

J.C. Fuller committed two turnovers for Western Illinois, but Wisconsin was unable to take advantage of both. Misses from both teams down the stretch brought overtime into the equation, but Western Illinois wasn’t about to let this one slip away.

Sandifer grabbed an offensive rebound off a Stensgaard missed dunk, keeping the play alive for the visitors. With 10 seconds to play, the ball made its way to Garret Covington, who calmly made two free throws to give Western Illinois the 69 – 67 lead.

With the ball in his hands, Bronson Koenig ran down the floor and got a decent look from the free throw line. The ball went up, clanked off the rim, and Stensgaard came down with it for the Leathernecks and the game was over.

Western Illinois pulled off the first major upset of the season, taking down the #17 Wisconsin Badgers by a final score of 69 – 67.

J.C. Fuller led the way for the Leathernecks, scoring a game-high 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the floor, including 4-of-4 from three point range. Jabari Sandifer added in 12 points and 7 rebounds, while Garret Covington added 16 points, none more important than the two free throws with just 10 seconds on the clock.

For Bo Ryan and the Badgers, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig each put in 17 points in a losing effort. Combined, they were 11-of-28 from the floor, and 4-of-12 from long distance. One positive takeaway for the Badgers was their ability to rebound on the offensive end. As a team, they recorded 22 offensive rebounds on the night.

The win is a great sign for Western Illinois (1-0) after finishing at the bottom of the Summit League standings a year ago. They head back home to Macomb, IL for their home opener on Sunday to take on Hannibal-LaGrange College.

For the Wisconsin Badgers (0-1), they have no time to dwell on the loss. They are back on the court on Sunday to take on a Siena Saints team who will also have upset on their minds.

– T.B.