Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
The Badgers let Penn State pull within one point with under three minutes remaining, but big plays and shots from Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz earned Wisconsin its 13th straight home win against Penn State and its 10th straight victory in Big Ten openers.
MADISON -- At this point, it seems apt to call Penn State basketball a pesky program, at least when it comes to facing the Badgers. Wisconsin took home a 60-51 victory, but Bo Ryan's squad needed multiple last-minute free throws to widen the gap to nine -- the game was much closer than the score suggests.
Pre-game statsheets highlighted Wisconsin's consistent victories over Penn State. Twelve out of 12 wins at the Kohl Center. Fifteen consecutive home victories. Fifteen wins out of the last 17 at any venue. Penn State entered the game ranked 166th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, roughly equal the average Horizon Conference or Western Athletic Conference squad. Sports bettors were offering the Nittany Lions and nearly 20 points. Pomeroy's system projected an 18-point victory.
But those who have been paying attention the last few years may have known better: the Badgers are just 4-2 against the Nittany Lions over their last six games (dating back to January of 2010), and none of the games has been decided by more than 10 points.
That streak continued Thursday night, and Penn State nearly broke their winless streak at the Kohl Center. Guard Jermaine Marshall consistently found the lane for the Nittany Lions, pouring in 19 points on 9-of-14 shooting. His final bucket, a leaning jumper in the paint with 2:52 to go in the second half, brought the Nittany Lions within one point at 50-49. It was seemingly instant replay of Marshall's entire game -- the Badgers would give him an inch of space and he'd turn it into a converted jumper or floater.
But Penn State struggled to hold on to the ball, committing 15 turnovers (25 percent of possessions) and they only managed one free throw attempt. In true Badger form, Wisconsin committed just four turnovers (6.8 percent).
"Taking care of the ball is something easy to convince players in our program that it helps you be successful because of our track record with it," Coach Bo Ryan said after the game. "The new guys coming in, they understand that, they value the basketball because each possession counts. Do we keep it to four every game? No. But I certainly like the way our guys, in their minds, have convinced themselves that taking care of the ball is the way the game should be played."
The Badgers scored 17 of their 60 points off Penn State turnovers; the Nittany Lions scored just four off Wisconsin's turnovers.
"It gives you a chance. If we didn't do that tonight, we don't have a chance," Ryan added.
For the first time this season, the Badgers didn't allow their opponent to sink a single free throw. Penn State reached the line once on just seven Badger fouls and missed their only opportunity. Jared Berggren blocked three shots and altered more without committing a single foul.
"We rely on being a disciplined team and taking care of the ball. We play position defense where we're not reaching, jumping around and getting out of position where we're getting called for a lot of fouls," Berggren said.
The Badgers wouldn't have had a chance otherwise thanks to horrid shooting -- just 22-for-57 from the field (38.6 percent), 3-for-17 from three (17.6 percent) and a grating 13-for-26 from the free throw line.
Ben Brust finished 5-for-14 from the field (2-for-8 from three; 13 points). Ryan Evans went 6-for-15 and made just one of his six free throws as he finished with 13 as well. Traevon Jackson missed four of his five shots and Sam Dekker missed five of his six.
Bruesewitz earned the save, nailing four straight free throws to grow the lead from five to nine in the final minute; the afroed senior put in 12 points overall and grabbed eight rebounds. Two gargantuan slam dunks from Berggren (13 points on 5-for-7 shooting) in the final two minutes helped the Badgers finally pull away -- if you can call it that.
The Badgers had chances to pull away in earnest early in the second half, as they rode an 19-4 run to end the first half to a 29-18 lead at the break. But Penn State matched Wisconsin shot for shot to open the second half until the 11-minute mark, when with the score 40-27 Penn State unleashed a 22-10 run of its own.
Aside from Marshall, the Nittany Lions picked up solid efforts from guard D.J. Newbill -- 12 points and eight rebounds, including two massive dunks of his own -- and Brandon Taylor -- eight points on 3-for-6 shooting and two rebounds. For the Badgers, no player outside the four starters in double-digits managed more than three points.
The victory marks the 10th straight time the club has opened the conference slate with a victory, a streak dating back to 2004 and tied for the nation's longest with Kansas and Gonzaga. The Badgers lost the 2003 Big Ten opener to Michigan, 66-65.