The show that went down in Madison, Wisconsin really began three weeks earlier in Assembly Hall. The show that you may assume I’m referring to was the overtime battle between IU and Wisconsin, understandably so.
But, no, the show that we really had the privilege of watching was one of two players lugging the weight of their respective Big Ten teams in a display of basketball beauty. It was a duet of theatrical domination with a hero and a loser.
Ten players were always on the court at a time, but the two my eyes couldn’t leave were IU’s Yogi Ferrell and Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes.
Between the two there were miraculous jumpers and thundering defensive stops. The two combined for 61 points in Wisconsin’s 82-79 victory Tuesday and were the stars in nearly every crucial moment down the stretch.
This battle began Jan. 5, when IU defeated Wisconsin 59-58 in Assembly Hall. That was the night IU began to gain some respect by winning an ugly, gritty game.
It was also the night Hayes was shut down. The junior forward spent much of the night matched up with IU freshman forward OG Anunoby. Anunoby made Hayes look helpless at times and held the Badger star to 3-of-13 shooting on the night. It was Anunoby’s coming-out party.
That evening, Ferrell, a senior guard, scored the Hoosiers’ final six points in the last 38 seconds to clinch the 1-point win. He made a nonsense jumper in traffic and sunk four straight free throws.
Since then, Ferrell has become IU’s all-time assist leader and the Big Ten Player of the Week. Hayes averaged 18.5 points a night over the following four games and led Wisconsin to an upset over Michigan State.
Now back to Tuesday. With the final seconds ticking in regulation during a tie game, Wisconsin had 6-foot-8 Hayes guarding Ferrell on the drive. Hayes stayed tight, created havoc and miraculously didn’t foul the tiny guard while forcing an off-shot and forcing overtime.
It was the moments before that made it a beautiful. During a night in which the IU offense struggled to earn open looks or create much natural offense, Ferrell took over.
It wasn’t selfish. At least it didn’t seem that way. The Hoosiers had been flowing so well over the 12-game win streak, I wondered if the offense truly missed sophomore guard James Blackmon Jr. Tuesday, we saw what the damages losing him caused.
So Ferrell was forced to sink a stepback 3-pointer and drive to the rim against a man twice his size. He hit a 3-pointer on the move to finish off a 10-2 Hoosier run and give IU the lead with a minute remaining. Another time, he grabbed an offensive rebound over several Wisconsin defenders and dished it to senior guard Nick Zeisloft, who couldn’t capitalize.
Ferrell was everywhere and could hardly be stopped.
This all happened while Wisconsin Coach Greg Gard even admitted that sometimes the Badgers gave the ball to Hayes and got out of his way.
Hayes was hitting jumpers with hands in his face and was scoring so dominantly all IU could do was foul. He went to the free throw line 22 times — four more than IU as a whole.
IU Coach Tom Crean said he was reluctant to double-team Hayes because of how good a passer he is.
Oh, and don’t forget when junior forward Troy Williams was on a hot streak and drove to the basket until Hayes swatted the ball into the stands. Hayes stared Williams down and ultimately ended the aforementioned hot streak.
It was constant one-upmanship between the two. Down four points with five seconds left in overtime — the game essentially over — Ferrell couldn’t help himself from draining another off-the-hop 3-pointer to keep it interesting.
But Hayes sunk his final two free throws and ended a show that was better than the game itself.
Tuesday was the night we saw two players dominate so regularly I never counted the other out. One, a tall and lengthy forward Sports Illustrated wrote in November as “the most interesting man in college hoops.” The other, a small, bouncy point guard climbing each and every IU all-time list.
Despite their differences, it was beautiful to watch.