MADISON, Wis. (AP) — In the end, Greg Gard got to gather with his team Wednesday night and celebrate a victory in his debut as a college basketball head coach. But it came with plenty of nerves and coaching points, considering Wisconsin squandered nearly all of a 30-point, second-half lead before holding on.
Nigel Hayes scored a team-high 24 points, Vitto Brown came up with a crucial blocked shot with 17 seconds left and the Badgers went 8-for-9 from the foul line in the final 1:34 to fend off Wisconsin-Green Bay 84-79, giving Gard a nerve-wracking win in his first game as Wisconsin's interim coach.
"If there ever was a tale of two halves, this is it," said Gard, whose postgame news conference was attended by approximately 50 friends and family members. "There's a lot of things we can learn from that we did really, really well. And there's a lot of things, obviously, that we have to correct."
Gard spent 23 years as an assistant to Bo Ryan, including the past 15 at Wisconsin, before being named interim coach when Ryan abruptly announced his retirement immediately after the Badgers' victory over Texas A&M Corpus Christi in their most recent game Dec. 15.
And it looked like Gard's first game in charge was going to be a breeze. Hayes had seven points in a 17-0 first-half run as Wisconsin (8-5) turned a deficit into a 32-16 lead. Green Bay (6-5) missed 16 consecutive shots, committed seven turnovers and went scoreless for 9:17 seconds as they fell behind by 21 at halftime. The Badgers pushed their advantage to 30 at 68-38 after Hayes' free throws with 13:01 left.
"We did so many good things in the first half, and even in the start of the second half," the 45-year-old Gard said. "We played through the post, we were able to spread the floor, and move and cut."
But the Phoenix dialed up their full-court pressure, flustering Wisconsin into a flurry of turnovers, and rattling off a stunning 33-6 run to get back into the game. Carrington Love had seven of his 28 points in the surge, during which Green Bay forced the Badgers into 14 of their season-high 26 turnovers.
"I thought when we got down 30, the game was probably over," said Phoenix coach Linc Darner, whose team also got 17 points from Jordan Fouse. "I give our guys a lot of credit, they never quit. They kept battling back. One thing I've talked with them about is one thing about our system, the game is never over. Whether we're up 20, down 20, you can always come back because of the way we play."
Green Bay got as close as three on three occasions in the final 1:45.
"We did not play well (in that run)," said Wisconsin's Ethan Happ, who had 16 points. "It was embarrassing to our program. It was embarrassing to us. I know it made me sick. I'm sure it made the other guys sick as well. We cannot play like that in the Big Ten season and expect to win at any point in the game."
After the Phoenix clawed within 74-71, Hayes hit a pair of free throws and converted a 3-point play. Love hit a 3 with 59 seconds left to pull Green Bay within 79-76, but his driving layup was blocked by Brown, who grabbed the rebound, was fouled and made two free throws to finish with 15 points.
Perhaps fittingly, Jordan Hill had the Badgers' final points with two foul shots with five seconds left. With starters Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter saddled with early foul trouble, Hill had by far the best game of his career. The sophomore had just seven points in 18 career appearances coming into the night, but scored eight points in the first half and finished with 10, four assists and four rebounds.
"In the grand scheme, we (did) want to give Coach Gard his first win, and I'm glad we could do that, but I wish it was under different circumstances," Hill said. "I think that he coached us really well and we didn't play as well as he coached."
Green Bay: The Phoenix narrowly missed hitting 80 points for the eighth time this season, but their 79 were the most allowed by Wisconsin this season — the only other teams to score more than 70 on the Badgers are Virginia Commonwealth (73) and Georgetown (71).
Wisconsin: Hayes' free throw to complete a 3-point play, which made it 79-73 with 1:02 left, was his 1,000th career point. The junior is the 42nd player in Badgers history to hit the milestone.
A LONG, LONG TIME AGO
The last time someone other than Ryan coached a Wisconsin game was March 15, 2001, when the Badgers — under interim coach Brad Soderberg — lost to Georgia State 50-49 in an NCAA tournament first-round game.
PHOENIX YET TO RISE IN MADISON
Green Bay is 0-18 against the Badgers in Wisconsin's capital city and 1-21 in the teams' all-time series. The Phoenix's lone victory in the series was 88-84 in overtime on Dec. 9, 2009.
Gard, the 16th coach in Wisconsin men's basketball history, is just the third Badgers coach since 1934 to win his debut. Soderberg in 2000 and Stan Van Gundy in 1994 are the others. Overall, Wisconsin coaches are 8-8 in their opening games.
Green Bay plays at Morehead State in a non-conference game Monday.
Wisconsin opens Big Ten play Tuesday against No. 9 Purdue at the Kohl Center.