Haters can can swallow their words. Chicken littles can breathe a sigh of relief. It's only one game, but No. 4 Wisconsin took a big step in the right direction with a resounding 72-58 win over No. 13 Belmont Thursday night.
On a day that saw the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in the Southwest Region both fall and another No. 4, Kentucky, escape on a last-second drive, the Badgers (24-8) denied the Bruins (30-5) in their bid to be the NCAA tournament's next Cinderella entry.
The game was won in throwback Wisconsin style. The Badgers held the high-scoring Bruins to 6-of-22 shooting behind the arc and 36.7% shooting overall, while ruling the boards with a 29-17 edge. Wisconsin took off in the second half when the team made it a priority to get the ball in to the post. The strategy worked wonders, led by Jon Leuer's 17 points after the break.
Though the Badgers held a 34-27 lead at halftime, UW looked similar to the team that disappointed in its previous two outing. Touching the post? Nonexistent. Ball control? Shaky. Opponents in the paint? Often. Belmont even forced seven pretty ugly turnovers in the first half.
The saving grace was that Belmont could not buy a bucket. After five quick points from Mick Hedgepeth at the outset, Wisconsin held the Bruins without a field goal for nearly eight minutes until a Hedgepeth layup pulled Belmont to within two, 11-9, with 10:47 to go in the half. The Badger defense was not perfect, but the effort was evident.
Hedgepeth led Belmont with 17 points and three rebounds.
Offensively, Wisconsin was stagnant and relied on outside shots in the first half. At one point, both Leuer and Jordan Taylor were out of the game as Bo Ryan tried to get something going in the first half. Luckily for the Badgers, it all worked out when they hit 5-of-8 from 3-point land to close the first half, turning a 20-17 deficit into a 32-25 advantage.
Give credit to the supporting cast members because they came to play. Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren all gave UW quality minutes up front. Bruesewitz played 28 minutes on a bum knee, finishing with a team-high nine rebounds while chipping in eight points.
Tim Jarmusz was a more than adequate ball handler in support of Taylor, which was important against the full court pressure applied by Belmont all game long. The senior swingman showed a willingness to shoot, hitting one 3-pointer, as well as posting four assists and four rebounds. Good play from Jarmusz helped the Badgers overcome a rough night by Josh Gasser.
Conversely, Belmont deep bench produced 28 points, still well below its average.
Contributions from its role players gave Wisconsin confidence to come out strong to start the second half. The Badgers went straight to Leuer down low for an easy jumper to start the second half and repeated the act four possessions later. The switch had been flipped.
As Leuer's midrange game shined, the offense began to flow. Taylor continued to draw plenty of fouls and became more of a facilitator in the second half. Wisconsin is at its best in such situations. Leuer's renewed presence opened up easier looks for Taylor as well.
Consecutive 3-pointers by Belmont's Jordan Campbell on Kerron Johnson assists kept the Bruins within four points and forced Ryan to take a timeout with 13:25 remaining. Wisconsin responded with a critical 13-1 run to take a commanding 56-40 lead and force Belmont to take a timeout of its own. The Badger run included 3-pointers by Bruesewitz (1) and Berggren (2), not to mention a beautiful alley-oop from Taylor to Leuer.
Wisconsin's lead would balloon to 19 points at one point, allowing fans to rest assured that their Badgers would not be the black sheep of the power conferences tonight.
Leuer finished with a game-high 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting and added seven rebounds. Taylor, who missed all of his 2-point field goals on the night, finishing 5-of-13 overall (5-of-9 on threes) for 21 points. The two combined for five of Wisconsin's 12 total turnovers against the swarming Belmont defense. Leuer in particular had a bit of trouble with his handle on Thursday.
Since Keaton Nankivil was in foul trouble and was not giving Bo Ryan his usual stellar defense, especially on hedges, the senior played just 23 minutes. Though his teammates picked him up, it may be Nankivil's and Gasser's turns to shine on Saturday night, when Wisconsin plays the Kansas State-Utah State winner at 7:40 p.m. (CDT).