CHICAGO — Indiana coach Tom Crean felt his team was playing some of its best basketball of the season after the Hoosiers beat Illinois in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.
A day later, he wasn’t so sure.
Christian Watford had 14 points, but No. 3 Indiana struggled to score down the stretch and lost 68-56 to No. 22 Wisconsin on Saturday.
“We made a couple comebacks this game, and did an excellent job of that,” Crean said. “But every time we made that comeback with what was working for us, we got away from it. We had some critical turnovers at key times, we had some critical second shots we gave up at key times.”
Cody Zeller added 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Hoosiers (27-6), who advanced with an 80-64 victory over the Illini. Victor Oladipo scored 10, but was 4 for 12 from the field and Indiana shot 38.2 percent overall.
“We knew what we had to do. We knew we had to move the ball in order to be successful against Wisconsin,” Watford said. “We just tried to force the ball in; it happens.”
The Hoosiers, who won the regular-season conference title, now have to wait until Sunday to see if they did enough to earn a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament. They have split their past six games, including losses to Minnesota and Ohio State in the bruising Big Ten.
Asked if he was “comfortable” his team was playing its best basketball right now, Crean called it a tough question following the setback against the Badgers.
“If you asked me the question yesterday, I probably would have had a different answer,” he said. “But we didn’t play as well today, so it’s just a matter of going and looking at the film, making the corrections that we need to make and moving forward.”
Wisconsin allowed only seven points after top-seeded Indiana pulled within one with 9:45 left. The Badgers earned their 12th consecutive win against the Hoosiers, tying a record for any school against the powerhouse program.
“There are just things in this game, no matter how you try to explain them, they defy explanation,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said, shrugging away Wisconsin’s long run against Indiana. “But we have players who are willing to work, to listen, to buy in.”
Ryan Evans scored 16 points and Ben Brust had 12 for Wisconsin (23-10), which has won three straight and six of eight. Sam Dekker scored nine of his 11 points in the second half, including seven in a row during one impressive burst.
Zeller and Oladipo each made a couple of big plays when Wisconsin tried to pull away in the second half. Zeller scored the first five points in a 10-0 run that gave the Hoosiers a 41-40 lead with 13:27 remaining. Oladipo soared in for a big offensive rebound and made a pull-up jumper during a quick six-point burst that got Indiana within one with 9:45 remaining.
The Badgers then ripped off eight of the next 10 points to open a 58-51 lead. Evans had a layup, Brust went 1 for 2 at the line, Jared Berggren made a big 3-pointer and Dekker dunked inside off a nice pass from Jackson.
“Just biding my time, picking my spots,” Berggren said of his only 3-point attempt in a 4-for-4 performance from the field. “I was open a couple times. Coaches told me to be aggressive. I was looking for a great shot, not a good one. It felt good.”
That strong stretch was enough to put away the Hoosiers, who managed just two field goals in the final 5:02. Watford also hurt Indiana’s chances when he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 2:15 to go and the Badgers up by five.
“Obviously we wanted to get this win today,” Zeller said. “We’ll learn from it, we’ll figure out what we did wrong. We’ll make the corrections and be ready for next week.”
Berggren finished with 11 points for the Badgers, who shot 51 percent from the field. Evans had eight rebounds, four assists, four blocked shots and a steal.
Wisconsin joins Purdue as the only schools with 12 straight victories against Indiana. The Boilermakers put together their run from Feb. 26, 1908, to Feb. 9, 1914.
“You take advantage of what you can, try to get good opportunities every time down, and try to limit their opportunities,” Ryan said. “It’s that constant clash. The game never changes. I’ve never outcoached anyone, outmaneuvered anyone, outstrategized anyone.”
With open looks hard to come by on each side of the court, the Hoosiers and Badgers turned to the 3-pointer in the first half to try to make some room for their big men inside.
Watford and Remy Abell made 3-pointers on consecutive Indiana possessions to help the Hoosiers open a 20-14 lead with 9:04 remaining. Wisconsin responded with a 12-2 spurt that included 3s from Brust and Mike Bruesewitz.
Wisconsin was 7 for 18 from long range for the game, compared to 5 for 17 for Indiana.
“The biggest story for us was we’ve been defending the 3 the last six, seven games at an incredibly high level, and today we didn’t,” Crean said. “They got some kick-out 3s and things of that nature, but we got away from what had been making us better.”