MADISON, Wis. — The conversation in the locker room at halftime between Wisconsin interim coach Greg Gard and forward Nigel Hayes was brief and to the point.
Stop taking outside shots and start getting to the foul line, Gard pleaded.
Message received — Hayes scored 18 of his 21 points in the second half, and the Badgers still got more than enough from the perimeter after making a season-high 13 3-pointers in a 79-68 win on Thursday night over Ohio State.
“He’s very good at finding spots,” Gard said. “To be able to put the ball into one of your better players’ hands that close to the basket, obviously it puts pressure on the defense.”
Wisconsin (14-9, 6-4 Big Ten) took advantage of open looks outside but nearly squandered a 12-point lead midway through the second half.
The Badgers made things difficult for themselves by going just 10 of 17 from the foul line for the night. Ohio State (14-10, 6-5) drew within 62-59 with 7:04 left on Jae’Sean Tate’s layup.
Hayes, though, was clutch in the second half.
On defense, he dropped back on his man to intercept a pass into the paint with 3:17 left.
Hayes followed with a dunk on the next possession, and Jordan Hill hit a 3 with the shot clock winding down for an eight-point lead with 1:39 left.
One of the keys of the second half was following Gard’s advice and getting more touches in the paint, Hayes said.
“And I think I did that a little better, I was able to get some things around the rim,” Gard said. “All in all, we did a better job at that.”
Wisconsin has clawed its way back into the middle of the conference pack after 1-4 start.
The Buckeyes lost their second straight game despite 27 points from JaQuan Lyle, who was 11 of 19 from the field. Kam Williams added 10 points, while Tate finished with nine.
Bronson Koenig scored 13 points for Wisconsin and was 3 of 7 from behind the arc. The Badgers were 13 of 27 from 3-point range.
Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said the plan defensively initially was to concentrate on guarding forwards Hayes and Ethan Happ, who were leading the Badgers offense in recent weeks.
“But we weren’t as quick as we needed to be to get back,” Matta said about defending outside shots. “We didn’t help the helper.”
Happ and Vitto Brown each added 12 points for Wisconsin.
Ohio State went with a small lineup to go on a 9-0 run to narrow the 62-50 deficit with 9:25 left.
“It got us space a little better, opened up some avenues to drive and kick,” Matta said. “Defensively, we weren’t doing as good a job as we needed to do on the bigs anyway.”
At one point, Wisconsin had three players who were from Ohio on the floor against the Buckeyes in Hayes, Vitto Brown and Khalil Iverson. Hayes chuckled when asked if that held any significance to him.
“No, I’m cool,” Hayes said. “They got the guys they wanted. I’ll take my two Final Fours and my wins and I’ll carry on my merry way.”
Hayes and Koenig played key roles in the program’s Final Four appearances the previous two seasons.
Ohio State: Tate was assessed a technical foul with 1:10 left in the first half after a play in which he elbowed Wisconsin’s Zak Showalter in the face after an Ohio State bucket. Showalter was standing behind Tate. … Lyle led all scorers in the first half with 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting. He was a combined 6 of 25 from the field in his previous five games.
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