Wisconsin escapes Happy Valley with seventh straight win

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Clutch free throw shooting and timely three-pointers helped the surging Badgers survive a dogfight with Penn State, 71-66, on Sunday afternoon.

Maybe the uninitiated, those outside the Big Ten, looked at Sunday's matchup between Penn State and Wisconsin and expected the No. 14 Badgers to cruise past the 10th place team in the Big Ten.

But for those who've been paying attention the last few seasons, nothing about this game was unexpected.

We knew D.J. Newbill would be a handful for the smaller Badger defenders that guarded him. And he was. The junior guard bullied his way to 11 first-half points and finished with a game-high 23 points on 23 shots.

Following its leading scorer's example, Penn State (14-15, 5-11 Big Ten) was aggressive throughout the second half, cutting Wisconsin's lead to 66-64 after senior Tim Frazier corralled a loose ball offensive rebound and made a twisting circus shot in the lane. But Wisconsin (24-5, 11-5) shut the door on the frisky Lions by sinking 5-of-6 free throw in the final 17 seconds to earn a 71-66 win.

The five-point win fit perfectly with the recent narrative between these two teams on PSU's home turf. Wisconsin escaped with a three-point road win last season and a six-point margin in 2012. Penn State beat the Badgers, 56-52, at the Bryce Jordan Center in 2011.

Amazingly, Wisconsin made just one field goal -- a knuckleball jumper by Traevon Jackson -- in the tense final eight minutes of this contest. However, the team made 13-of-14 free throws over that span to compensate, led by four apiece from Jackson and Nigel Hayes.

Hayes was 5-of-6 on freebies for the game and has hit 10 of his last 11. Following the freshman's lead, Wisconsin made 19-of-24 (79.2%) free throws as a team, continuing its hot streak from the Indiana game.

Another thing we knew coming into the game is that the Badgers can shoot. And three-point shooting covers a multitude of sins. Wisconsin outscored Penn State by 21 points behind the arc, offsetting the punishment the Nittany Lions dealt UW inside.

Penn State crashed the boards more effectively on both ends. A 34-28 overall edge in rebounding, led by Brandon Taylor's 10 caroms, translated into a whopping 50 points in the paint for the Nittany Lions. They got a plethora of easy hoops at the rack from bigs and guards alike. Yet, that interior focus proved to be Penn State's undoing -- the Lions had no reliable outside shooter to hit threes when they needed to make up points quickly.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin seemed content to sit back and take jump shots all day. Luckily, it worked for the most part. Every time PSU made a run, its defense would slip up and leave key Badgers unattended from long distance. Wisconsin was fortunate that its top shooters took advantage.

Ben Brust made good on three separate run-snapping treys in the second half -- at the 17:19, 11:03 and 8:21 marks respectively. Each time, the senior guard's bombs extended a tenuous two, three or four-point lead into a more comfortable cushion. In all, Brust hit 4-of-7 from behind the arc, finishing with 14 points and five rebounds.

Josh Gasser played a similar role in the first half. The Port Washington, Wis., native hit two crucial three-pointers late in the half to maintain UW's lead. Gasser led the Badgers with 15 points, including three treys.

A 9-0 run by Wisconsin opened up some breathing room for the Badgers midway through the first half at 17-9. Along with his free throw shooting late, Hayes was also impressive early on with his deft passing touch, finding Sam Dekker and Duje Dukan for easy points.

However, while the Badgers again struggled to contain Newbill, a more concerning development in the opening half was the complete absence of weakside help defense on numerous occasions -- something integral to interior defense when a team fronts the post as Wisconsin does.

Behind Gasser's shooting and good minutes from Jackson and Dukan, UW carried a slim 31-27 lead into halftime.

The Badgers hit their largest lead at 42-33 when Gasser hit another wide open three-pointer with 15:40 to play. Penn State's John Johnson began to heat up after that, slicing to the hoop for all eight of his points to keep PSU within striking distance. Penn State was also aided by a couple of Jackson turnovers (one being a 10-second violation) against full court pressure.

Bo Ryan then called timeout when PSU pulled to within 48-45 with 11:14 left. Brust responded by hitting a triple fresh out of the break.

Hayes eventually set up Brust's final three-pointer of the day off a beautiful touch pass in the post to push UW's lead to 56-51. It was the final bucket before the under-eight media timeout signaled Wisconsin's final field goal drought.

A big offensive rebound from Sam Dekker and two ensuing free throws with under two minutes to play showcased Wisconsin's ability to make crucial plays when it mattered. Despite Newbill's big day scoring, his two turnovers late combined with the more efficient offense from the Badger guards proved to be the difference. Gasser, Brust and Jackson combined for 42 points, while Frazier had a relatively quiet 10.

All in all, Wisconsin was able to make just enough shots to counter the more aggressive play by Penn State. Wisconsin shot 22-for-50 (44%) overall and 8-for-24 (33%) on three-pointers. We've seen the Badgers upset in similar situations when the shots don't drop.

Penn State's 48 percent shooting (28-for-58) was negated to some degree by its 1-for-13 effort from three-point land.

With the victory, Wisconsin has officially clinched its 13th-straight finish in the top four of the Big Ten standings. After Illinois' Saturday upset of Michigan State, the Badgers are also tied for second place, holding the tiebreaker over the Spartans for seeding in the upcoming conference tournament.

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For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.

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