MADISON — Similar to Tuesday’s game at Creighton, the Wisconsin Badgers found themselves in an immediate 8-0 deficit on Thursday against Chicago State at the Kohl Center.
Less than 48 hours removed from the physical battle in a tough road environment that handed the No. 9 Badgers their first loss of the season, it was beneficial for Wisconsin that the Cougars were not the No. 22 Bluejays. Forward Vitto Brown scored 12 points and guard Khalil Iverson added a career-high 11 points as the Wisconsin bench provided a needed spark as the Badgers (2-1) defeated the Cougars 69-51.
“The contributions we got off the bench, just the energy and the enthusiasm and how those guys off the bench gave us a spark,” Badgers head coach Greg Gard said. “I think that’s one of the traits hopefully of this team as we continue to grow. That we got contributions in a lot of areas, not always maybe in point production.
“We’re obviously a work in progress and will continue to get better, but I like what I’m seeing in terms of guys that aren’t afraid to step in in key moments and continue to get better and continue to grow.”
At times, the Badgers did look like a work in progress, turning the ball over 13 times and shooting 5-of-19 on three-pointers.
It was a sound defensive effort, though, that held Chicago State to 0.773 points per possession and the bench contributions that provided the difference.
Tallying 36 combined points, Wisconsin’s bench accounted for over half of the team’s scoring on Thursday night. Following Iverson’s career night, forward Alex Illikainen finished with eight points and five rebounds and forward Charles Thomas had seven points and seven boards.
“That’s the nice thing about having guys on the bench. They’ll go in and—play as hard as you can as smart as you can for as long as you can—and then somebody else will come in and repeat. And then you’ll get your break, get your cup of water and go as long and as hard and as smart as you can and then we'll have somebody come in and pick you up.”
Despite Iverson’s electrifying dunks, the spotlight, however, may have belonged to guard D’Mitrik Trice as the freshman guard impressed with seven assists and three points as an effective facilitator.
“He does some things that you can’t coach,” Gard said of Trice. “He does some things that he either picked up from his dad, his older brother when he was growing up… he’s just a natural. He was a really good high school quarterback. He knows how to lead. He says the right things; he asks the right questions.
“I thought he’d be a good player here, to have the impact he’s had this soon. He makes people around him better. He does what a point guard should do.”
Given the way the Badgers opened the game, their 32-24 halftime lead was not the worst of possible outcomes. Led by two triples by guard Fred Sims Jr.—who finished with 26 points on 10-of-22 shooting—Chicago State rattled off the game’s first eight points before the Wisconsin bench helped spark a 19-0 Badgers run.
Gard showed no hesitation in going to his bench right away, subbing out Brown and forward Ethan Happ just 70 seconds into the game and playing 10 men in the first six minutes of the first half.
“Because when I sat down, I’m like, ‘I ain’t even sweat yet! I ain’t even loose yet,’” Brown said. “It’s all good, it’s always important to send a message with your leaders like us because we can mess up and get taken out.”
Trice distributed five assists and buried a triple over 13 first-half minutes, Illikainen poured in six points and Iverson put his athleticism on full display with a block on a close-out and an emphatic dunk—one of three for the sophomore on the night—following a steal.
...and if you just want to watch Khalil Iverson dunks, we've got that too.— Wisconsin Basketball (@BadgerMBB) November 18, 2016
“[I] try to be the spark guy, no matter when I get in, who I go in for, anything like that,” Iverson said. “Just try to go in, do a bunch of positive things, get us going if we’re in a little slump and provide a lot of energy and help us win.”
Big Ten preseason player of the year Nigel Hayes played just 12 minutes and scored three points on 1-of-8 shooting. With the Badgers headed to the Maui Jim Maui Invitational on Friday and holding a commanding lead, Gard and company seemed content to let the supporting cast go to work.
In the second half, Wisconsin opened with a 14-6 run to pad its lead before achieving its largest lead of the night at 69-43 with just over three minutes to play.
Coming off 38 three-point attempts in the loss to Creighton, the Badgers came out struggling against the Cougars’ zone before utilizing their size advantage to win the points in the paint battle, 34-10.