WASHINGTON — Wisconsin revved up the defense against weary Northwestern and got the desired result, a 76-48 victory Saturday that earned the No. 24 Badgers a berth in the Big Ten Tournament championship game for the third time in five years.
Nigel Hayes scored 18 points and Ethan Happ added 16 for the second-seeded Badgers. They never trailed in their third straight victory — second in the tournament — following a run of five losses in six games.
Wisconsin (25-8) will vie for its fourth Big Ten title Sunday against No. 8 seed Michigan, which will be playing its fourth game in four days. It will be the seventh championship game appearance for the Badgers, trailing only the eight by Ohio State.
Northwestern (23-11) was playing for the second time in less than 24 hours and third game in three days, and it showed. Coming off wins over Rutgers and No. 3 seed Maryland, the Wildcats missed 20 of 27 shots in the first half, had only one assist and trailed 38-21.
Their poor shooting could be attributed in part to the Wisconsin defense, which allowed a Big Ten-low 61.5 points per game. It was the 18th time in 33 games the Badgers allowed 60 points or fewer.
Scottie Lindsey scored 16 points for Northwestern, which went 18 for 52 (35 percent) from the floor, was outrebounded 37-27 and didn’t get their second assist until the 8-minute mark of the second half.
The Wildcats brought none of the momentum from the Maryland game into this one, missing their first seven shots and falling behind 15-3 with seven minutes elapsed.
It was 19-13 before Wisconsin’s Zak Showalter popped a pair of 3-pointers to start a 15-6 spurt that widened the gap to 15 points.
At that point, the Wildcats were shooting 28 percent with four turnovers.
The second half wasn’t much different. After Northwestern closed to 48-33, D’Mitrik Trice and Vitto Brown each nailed a pair of 3-pointers in a 16-4 run that made it 64-37 with 7:44 remaining.
Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus was in attendance for the third time in three days, though she had little to cheer about. Her son, seldom used sophomore Charlie Hall, plays for Northwestern but didn’t get in the game.
Northwestern: This loss takes nothing away from what the Wildcats have accomplished this season, setting a school record for wins and beating 25th-ranked Maryland to earn a berth in the Big Ten semifinals.
Wisconsin: The Badgers have clearly righted themselves after that horrid stretch at the end of the regular season in which lost to Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa in succession.
Northwestern: The school that hosted the first NCAA Tournament in 1939 but still hasn’t played in one should put an end to that dubious distinction.
Wisconsin: The Badgers seek their second Big Ten title in three years. They beat Michigan at home 68-64 on Jan. 17 and lost on the road 64-58 on Feb. 16.