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Wisconsin closes on Penn State for impressive win

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It wasn’t a start-to-finish rout for the Badgers, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t pretty.

A first-half nailbiter turned into a second-half rout as the Wisconsin Badgers’ offense jumpstarted an 82-55 blowout over the Penn State Nittany Lions Tuesday night at the Kohl Center.

Uncharacteristic lights-out shooting in the first half from Penn State kept the Nittany Lions within reach of a Wisconsin team that couldn’t take advantage of early turnovers and foul trouble, but the veteran Badgers’ second-half performance was symbolic of why they’re tied for first place in the Big Ten. They outscored the Nittany Lions 46-22 in the final 20 minutes by attacking the inside early, knocking down their outside shots, going 11-of-13 from the line and continuing a solid defensive effort as Penn State regressed back to the mean on offense.

After late-game heroics against Michigan and Minnesota last week, Bronson Koenig led the Badgers with 20 points (8-of-13 from the field, 4-of-9 from three-point range) by attacking, finding open looks and making an impact for a full 40 minutes. Ethan Happ played another solid game with 14 points, eight rebounds and three steals (although a glaring four turnovers taints his performance).

With a fairly quiet 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting and six rebounds, Vitto Brown put in a silent but powerful game while ailed and encumbered with a bum knee. Brown went 2-of-4 from behind the arc, drove to the hoop for a couple of acrobatic layups and knocked down shots inside the arc throughout the game.

Both teams started out the game hot from the floor, but turnovers crippled the game flow as Penn State and Wisconsin notched seven and four turnovers respectively in the first eight minutes. Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Brown and Zak Showalter each hit early threes and Happ kept up the yeoman’s work he produced in Minnesota.

Utilizing pump fakes and dribble penetration, the Badgers put in short jumpers from the lane. Prototypical hustle plays from Showalter for an offensive rebound and Happ for a steal on an entry pass gave the Badgers extra opportunities while the Nittany Lions knocked down mid-range jumpers and a deep three-pointer to close the gap.

Drawing fouls on Penn State got Wisconsin into the bonus early, and the Badgers were rewarded with fruitful trips to the line for Brown and Showalter. Unable to find Happ inside for a stretch, Brown committed a stupid turnover on the perimeter after an indecisive leap, thus Showalter fouled Penn State’s quick transition attack. Then Shep Garner hit his third three-pointer of the half as the trailer and Payton Banks knocked down back-to-back threes, catching Alex Illikainen providing him plenty of lucrative real estate at the top of the key.

Wisconsin held a 36-33 lead going into halftime thanks to a 10-of-16 free throw mark—a meager percentage, but the volume paid dividends—and a plus-6 offensive rebounding mark. Despite not hitting a three-pointer in the final 13 minutes and allowing the opponent to shoot 54.5 percent from the field and 60 percent from three, the Badgers were the dominant team. Controlling the flow of the first half, they forced nine Penn State turnovers and put the Nittany Lions in a precarious situation with 13 personal fouls heading into the second half, including five players with two each. Penn State’s shooting percentage bailed them out and kept them within reach.

To start the second half, Happ put in two early buckets—one a delicious play; he was isolated on the wing, the Badgers cleared out and he went to work on his man. Ball movement and clean offensive cuts produced three-pointers from Showalter and Koenig, and then a back-and-forth, two-man game from Hayes and Happ netted a shifty inside bucket. All of this baffled the Nittany Lions’ defense to the tune of 16 points in four-and-a-half minutes.

Greg Gard entrusted the sizable lead to a portion of the bench, and while Wisconsin didn’t let it slip away, the game grew sloppy and ugly as the speed picked up. A bad no-call on a Penn State lob, two Charles Thomas IV fouls, late-in-the-shot-clock prayers and relatively barbarous basketball was played as Penn State sped the game up with its press.

With the Badgers’ big three back in the game, Khalil Iverson threw down a slam for the ages on an inbounds pass from Koenig, and then Iverson knocked down a triple from the wing, a sure sign that the Badgers are firing on all cylinders.

Maintaining the 20-point lead, Koenig put on a clinic down the stretch with another three-pointer and a coast-to-coast drive to the rim featuring a hesitation dribble to catch Watkins leaning forward, finishing with a fully outstretched right arm on the left side of the bucket. Koenig ran a beautiful stretch of offense, moving into open spaces for all to find and dishing the ball with aplomb as the game wound down.

On a personal note, I really needed this victory over Penn State because I frequently wake up screaming just thinking about my trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game in December.

Odds and Ends

  • Garner’s three trailer threes were alarming at the time, and although they didn’t matter in this game, the Badgers’ defense needs to account for that trailer. I believe Banks’s two threes may have been trailing threes as well. Just something for this defense to adjust to, especially against teams that shoot well from outside.
  • Happ drove from the three-point line late in the first half into some traffic and drew a foul, and I’ve mentioned it before, but it would be awesome to see more Badgers doing this, specifically when they get teams into dire foul trouble like Tuesday night. They were hemorrhaging fouls and the Badgers didn’t put them out of their misery. Koenig didn’t attempt a single free throw. That’s a move he’s gotta make when he’s sitting there, jab-stepping. Same with Showalter and Hill if they’re in the game, and Brown has shown that ability in the right scenario. If they can draw a foul, that’s perfect because they can actually hit their free throws.
  • Happ has proven his post prowess, but he needs space to do that. There’s no reason anyone should clog the paint when Happ is in the game—unless it’s Hayes, who has shown the ability to work with Happ in the lane area. Their back-and-forth can be masterful when those two stretch the inside defenders in just the right way. So everybody else stay out of there! (Looking at you, Vitto.)
  • When the game got sloppy, Gard came out of the timeout with a Hayes-Happ-Koenig-Trice-Iverson lineup that was electric and fun. I’d be interested to see the stats for that lineup because I think it could be deadly on both ends of the floor and in transition.
  • I’ve always cringed when the Badgers face the press, and although I’m not as worried about them breaking it this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if more teams throw it at them just to slow down the offense. The Badgers aren’t as precise in a harried half-court offense or in a semi-transition scenario if they break the press quickly. I’ll be interested to see what other teams throw at them and how they handle it.
  • Happ’s footwork has been compared to Kevin McHale, but shoutout to the coaching staff because I’ve noticed impressive footwork inside from Showalter, Hayes and Brown all season. Showalter’s pivot work on a drive was calculated and well orchestrated, definitely a testament to the coaching.