MADISON -- The fourth-ranked, Big Ten-leading Wisconsin Badgers took on the last-place Northwestern Wildcats Saturday at the Kohl Center. The Badgers looked to avenge a shocking 65-56 upset in Madison last season, and a win would get them off to their best start (9-1) in conference play since 1914.
Wisconsin was indeed able to take care of business against the Wildcats, winning handily 65-50. It was the Badgers' sixth straight win in conference play.
"[Wisconsin] is as good a team as we have played all year," Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said. "They're a bunch of old guys who have a chance to win a national championship."
In the first half, the Badgers asserted themselves as the best team on the court from the beginning. Sam Dekker scored the team's first five points with a three-pointer and an alley-oop from Josh Gasser, who was outside the three-point line.
The Badgers continued where Dekker started, going on a 16-2 run to start the game that extended for the first seven minutes. They jumped out to a 17-point lead with 11:25 remaining in the first half, which saw five different Wisconsin players score during that time.
"That first four or five minutes really was where it was won," Collins said. "It was 21-4."
The Wildcats did make a run midway through the first half, scoring nine straight during a Wisconsin drought. The run brought Northwestern within eight points of Wisconsin, but was the closest the Wildcats ever got. The Badgers answered with a 12-4 run of their own to finish the last four minutes of the half.
The Badgers went into the half leading 37-21 with Nigel Hayes and Dekker leading the scoring with 11 each. Hayes also registered seven rebounds in the first half after not recording a single rebound in the Badgers' last game against Indiana.
"You have to take what the defense gives you," Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. "If they're gonna pinch everything and try to keep the ball out of the middle of the zone, you have to knock some outside shots down.
After taking 12 threes in the first half, the Badgers seemed content to settle for the open outside looks and caught fire early. To begin the second half, Wisconsin extended its lead to 23 points, but both offenses were stagnant for much of the second half. The Wildcats came out with a more effective zone defense, one that was easily beaten by the Badgers in the first half. Both teams exchanged baskets for much of the second half.
When Bronson Koenig was able to return to the floor in the second half after foul trouble in the first, he made his presence felt. The sophomore point guard scored just five points in the first half, but exploded for 11 in the second to finished with a career-high 16.
"Two assists, no turnovers. He didn't force any shots," Ryan said. "He didn't panic out there, he made good ball fakes, set up other guys."
"Confidence is everything, especially with shooting," Koenig added. "The past couple of weeks, like I said, my confidence has grown quite a bit and obviously playing a lot more minutes you get more opportunities."
Hayes made a living at the free throw line, shooting 7-of-8 there and finishing with 11 points and eight rebounds. Dekker continued his scoring ways with 16 points and seven rebounds. After being injured for most of the non-conference season, he averaged 13.6 points and 6.1 rebounds in Big Ten play coming into the game.
Frank Kaminsky and Gasser also pitched in nicely as Wisconsin kept Northwestern out of contention all game. Kaminsky finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Gasser, in his 127th start in a Wisconsin uniform, passed Alando Tucker for the most career starts in UW history and scored eight points, grabbed nine rebounds and had three assists.
"When the injury happened, I didn't know if I would play again, to be honest," Josh Gasser of his ACL tear two years ago. "It was tough, but something like this is credit to all the hard work."
The Badgers will next take on Nebraska Tuesday at 8 p.m. in Lincoln on ESPN.