Wisconsin’s inconsistency looms large in NIT vs. Liberty

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For Wisconsin to get past visiting Liberty in the second round of the NIT on Sunday at Madison, Wis., the Badgers will have to do something they have not done since early January: Win back-to-back games. Second-seeded Wisconsin (18-14) defeated Bradley 81-62 in the first round Tuesday behind a career-high 36 points from Steven Crowl. Third-seeded Liberty (27-8), appearing in the NIT for the first time, topped Villanova 62-57 in its opener on Tuesday. The Badgers have not won two in a row in a 19-game span since defeating Minnesota on Jan. 3 for their sixth consecutive victory. Since then, Wisconsin is 7-12, including a first-round loss in the Big Ten tournament that quashed its hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid. Liberty shared the ASUN regular-season title with Kennesaw State, but when the teams met in the conference tournament title game, it was Kennesaw State that pulled out the 67-66 victory.

Crowl entered the game against Bradley averaging 11.5 points per game, but the 7-foot junior hit 12 of 16 shots, including a career-best five 3-pointers, and went 7 of 7 from the free-throw line. Wisconsin’s other three double-digit scorers — Chucky Hepburn, Tyler Wahl and Connor Essegian — were a combined 4 of 20 against Bradley. However, the Badgers hit 23 of 28 free throws, both season highs. “I’m really happy for these guys because they put a lot into this year,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “Obviously, we’ve had ups and downs, but for them to be able to continue to play basketball and play it well tonight, I’m happy for them.” Liberty’s Darius McGhee, who was 0 of 11 from 3-point range in the ASUN title game, bounced back for a game-high 26 points against Villanova, including 5 of 13 beyond the arc. McGhee, the school’s all-time leading scorer, averages 22.6 points per game, fourth-best in the country, along with a team-high 158 3-pointers. Kyle Rode is the only other double-figure scorer at 10.8. The Flames, who average 74.8 points and allow 60.5, are 19-1 at home, but 8-7 away. Their scoring margin of 14.3 per game is third-best in the country, behind only Houston and Gonzaga. Although this will be the first meeting between Liberty and Wisconsin, Flames coach Ritchie McKay is familiar with the Badgers from his time as an assistant at Virginia. “They’re really physical,” McKay said. “Coach Gard, I’ve known him for years. I have a ton of admiration for how they do it. They never beat themselves. This was an (NCAA) at-large candidate up until the last 10 days maybe of the season.”