For a team to beat a conference foe by nearly 30 points, a lot has to go right. Last night, and specifically in the second half, that was the story for the Badgers at home.
Second Half Surge
At halftime of this contest, No. 15 Wisconsin led by just three, 36-33. Some early turnovers and missed free throws hurt the home squad, but the Nittany Lions were also shooting the lights out, especially from deep. As Wisconsin was favored by 15 to win this game, the three point lead at the break wasn’t exactly comfortable for a team competing for at least a conference championship.
During the 15 minute intermission, something sparked.
The Badgers went on to outscore Penn State by 24 in the second half, 46-22, leading to an 82-55 victory. Wisconsin was clearly the more talented and experienced team, but they also felt they needed to make a statement in the second half. Much of this statement and turnaround had to do with transition defense, and the lack thereof in the first half. “I’m obviously extremely happy and impressed with our team in the second half, especially on defense (transition),” Coach Gard expressed in his opening statement after the game. He should have been very pleased with the team and how they handled it, not allowing any transition points in the second half after giving up 13 in the first.
Couple the improved transition defense with shooting 56% from the field and 85% from the free throw line in the second half, and generally that will lead to victory. However, the most impressive part of this surge was not just X’s and O’s, but came from the team’s heart and soul. Gard did not name any specific players in his press conference, but said that they (as the team leaders) had a message within the locker room during the halftime break, before Gard even came into the room to address his squad. He also mentioned that everything he brought up, including bringing it every night and transition defense, was likely already mentioned by his players. With a team that features four seniors in the starting lineup and a lot of experience, that was a great sign for things to come.
As a team, the Wisconsin Badgers put up 82 points tonight. The starting five accounted for 66 of these 82 points, which is obviously a great deal of them. However, 16 bench points is much better than the Badgers have been averaging in Big Ten play, and the scoring love was spread throughout the starters as well, with everyone in the lineup scoring at least seven, all the way up to 20 points for Bronson Koenig.
Vitto Brown looked more like his old self on the offensive end, putting up 16 points on a terrific 6-8 shooting, and newly-turned-23-year-old Zak Showalter also chipped in with seven.
However, the Badgers’ three headed monster of Nigel Hayes, Ethan Happ, and Koenig showed up again and took over the game in the second half. Koenig led the trio with 20 points, while Happ put up 14 and grabbed eight boards. Hayes, the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, did not have his best shooting performance at 2/7, but had a solid overall game with nine points, and a team-eading eight rebounds and four assists. Penn State Head Coach Patrick Chambers was asked about defending the Badgers after the game, stating, “It’s pick your poison, guarding either Happ and Hayes in the post or Koenig on the outside.” Chambers is correct, as the Badgers’ Big Three still accounted for over half of the team’s points, on a night where bench production was improved and nine different players scored.