MADISON — In the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers’ last game of 2016, Wisconsin (11-2) opened up Big Ten play against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11-2). The Badgers came into the night on a seven game win streak, while the Scarlet Knights came off a loss looking for their first road conference win since they’ve joined the Big Ten. Rutgers would not get that tonight, as the Badgers took this one with relative ease, 72-52.
Wisconsin started their Big Ten season with a bang on a fast break dunk from Ethan Happ, and conference season was underway. The Badgers got off to a quick 8-0 start four minutes in, thanks to two steals from Zak Showalter and four points from Nigel Hayes, including a very pretty left-handed finish.
The experienced Badgers kept up the tough defense, forcing six turnovers in the first eight minutes of play. Tough defense is a staple in the Wisconsin program, and the home team couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, leading 13-2 early.
This Big Ten Opener had a pretty ugly first half, featuring 19 combined turnovers and only 51 combined points. Luckily for the Badgers, style points do not equal victories, and Wisconsin closed out the first half on a 7-0 run to lead 33-18 at the break.
Nigel Hayes had a very efficient first half with 12 points on 4/6 from the field, while Showalter scored eight and came away with three steals. Defense was the key, as the Badgers forced 12 turnovers and Rutgers shot less than 25% from the field.
After a slow first half for both teams, Wisconsin came out quickly with 10 points in the first three minutes and change of the second half. Happ had a couple strong post moves, while Bronson Koenig hit his second three and Vitto Brown got on the board with one from long range.
A definite highlight for the Badgers came at around the 15-minute mark in the second half, with a monstrous throwdown from Hayes on a putback attempt. After Wisconsin extended their lead to 19, the Scarlet Knights cut it to 53-44 at the 8:22 mark, keyed by Mike Williams’ 13 points. But Wisconsin answered the Scarlet Knights’ run with a 12-2 run of their own, extending the lead to 65-46 at the 3:33 mark.
This was certainly a grind-it-out Big Ten game for the Badgers, who were led by Hayes and Showalter with 20 and 18 points apiece, respectively. Hayes also went an impressive 10/10 from the charity stripe.
After the game, Hayes was asked about the Badgers’ “slow” pace and style of play and gave his clear-cut explanation. “It’s not that we play slow or want to play slow, we just take good shots,” he said.
Coach Gard was asked about Showalter’s increased scoring as of late, and he had some nice things to say about the fifth-year senior.
“He stays within his lane. He doesn’t try to do things he’s not capable of,” said Gard. “How hard he plays, practice or a game, he brings the hard hat, lunch pail mentality.”
Wisconsin basically handled this game from the jump, but there were certainly moments of ugly and lethargic play. Happ was asked if he thinks the team is officially ready for Big Ten play.
“We’re not where we want to be, but I think we’re trending in that direction,” said Happ, who had another double-double. “It’s like last year where we got off to a slow start, but then at the end of the year were at our best.”
Wisconsin (12-2) looks to continue its winning streak at No. 16 Indiana on January 3rd.