Wisconsin vs. Northwestern recap: Badgers blow out Wildcats in Big Ten opener

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin forged a huge first-half lead Thursday night and cruised to an easy 76-49 win, handing Northwestern head coach Chris Collins a rude welcome in his first league game.

Wisconsin looked every bit like the No. 4 team in the country Thursday night, dominating Northwestern from start to finish, 76-49, to win its 11th straight Big Ten opener.

Leading the way was forward Nigel Hayes. The freshman continued his recent stellar play, setting new career highs with 19 points and six rebounds. He showed off a versatile offensive game, scoring 13 points in the first half off drives, jumpers and brute force for the Badgers (14-0, 1-0 Big Ten). Wisconsin jumped out to 26-point lead at the break, 40-14, and the rout was on.

Northwestern had no answer for Hayes' bullish post game all night. Wildcat forward Nikola Cerina crumpled to the floor just trying to keep Hayes boxed out on a rebound opportunity early in the second half. Hayes finished 8-of-12 from the field and added two steals.

The Wildcats (7-7, 0-1) had very few solutions for anything UW did. Northwestern slowed the game to a crawl early on with a deliberate offense, as both teams missed a few wide open jumpers. As Wisconsin began to heat up, however, the Wildcats continued to sputter. The Badger defense held Northwestern to 26 percent (6-of-23) shooting in the first half, while UW shot 59 percent (16-of-27).

Though Wisconsin was not on fire from three-point land (only 5-for-16), the Badgers moved the ball exceptionally well and knifed through the Northwestern defense with ease. A telecast graphic showed UW had assisted one nine of its 10 baskets at one point in the second half. The team tallied 16 assists all told.

The shooting didn't cool off much in the second half either: UW shot 55 percent for the game.

Wisconsin simply had better basketball players -- and better athletes. In a bit of role reversal that is becoming more commonplace for Wisconsin this year, the Badgers loosened up once they were able to force a few turnovers and run the floor a bit. Although the box score only credits UW with six fast break points, it scored 15 points off seven Wildcat turnovers.

Meanwhile, the Badgers took excellent care of the ball themselves. After committing only four turnovers Thursday, UW has turned the ball over just six times in the last 80 minutes of play.

In addition to Hayes, the entire bench was a strong point for Wisconsin. In fact, the reserves actually outscored the starters in the first half. When the smoke cleared , the visiting bench outscored the home team's bench 32-4. Junior Duje Dukan added seven points in 10 solid minutes for UW.

Sometimes finding negatives in a game like this are tougher, but it was surprisingly obvious what Bo Ryan will emphasize to his group after this one. Sophomore big man Alex Olah was the lone bright spot for Northwestern in the opener as he put up a career-high 23 points himself. The 7-foot, 265-pound center was no match for the craftiness of Hayes and Frank Kaminsky on defense, but he showed a nice touch for a man of his size on offense.

Kaminsky played decently but  was bullied a few times by the bigger Olah. That scenario will be one to monitor as Wisconsin continues to face bigger and better teams in the Big Ten.

Ryan wasn't too pleased with some of the effort late on Olah, bringing both Hayes and Kaminsky to the bench in favor of Dukan at one point. After giving Olah way too much space on an easy basket, Dukan was replaced by Zach Bohannon at the next break.

Sam Dekker was active again for Wisconsin, however. The sophomore swingman narrowly missed another double-double, complimenting Hayes with 15 points and eight rebounds of his own.

Traevon Jackson found a cutting Dekker for a dunk with one of his four assists to start the second half, as the Badgers basically traded buckets with the host Wildcats to maintain their lead.

Northwestern's Drew Crawford suffered through a rough shooting night (3-for-10) with Josh Gasser marking him, but he began to hunt his shot more right away after halftime, giving the Wildcats at least some movement on offense. After another basket by Olah, Northwestern even popped into the famed 1-3-1 zone right away to try to shake things up.

It didn't work.

The Wisconsin lead ballooned to 31 points, at 51-20, on a Hayes jumper with 14:14 left to play. The most excitement Northwestern could muster was the mini burst that followed. Crawford blocked a Kaminsky dunk attempt, which was followed by a bad entry pass by Ben Brust. Then Crawford sank a 3-pointer to pull within 51-26 with 12:33 remaining.

But Brust made up for his turnover by calmly canning a 24-footer to extend the lead back to 28 points.

With the win, Wisconsin is one victory away from matching the best start in school history, which was set a century ago by the 1913-'14 squad.

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