MADISON - It was a game befitting of the challenging journey the University of Wisconsin is about to embark on, one its players hope ends with the school’s first regular season Big Ten title in seven years.
A grinding, physical affair that looked more like a February conference game than the final tune-up before conference play, senior All-American Frank Kaminsky carried No.6 Wisconsin through an ugly first half and kept the Badgers afloat long enough for the shooting to catch on to slip past Buffalo, 68-56, Sunday night at the Kohl Center.
“We knew what exactly what they had coming in, how they were going to play,” said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. “They were more aggressive to the loose balls in the first half … I think this was a very good game to get ready for the Big Ten.”
Kaminsky scored 14 of his game-high 25 points in the opening session for the Badgers (12-1), who scratched out their best RPI victory of the season despite shooting only 42.4 percent from the floor, 30 percent from 3-point range and having junior Sam Dekker (13 points) being the only other UW player in double figures.
“That’s why Frank is the All-American, best player in college,” said sophomore Nigel Hayes (9 points). “That’s why it’s an honor to play on a team with him when the other guys are just being their average basketball players. We’ve got Frank we can give the ball to and he’ll carry us to the promise land.
“Frank, as usual, did another great job, had a great game and got us though and got us a victory.”
Kaminsky added 11 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the season and added six blocks to help the Badgers win their 51st consecutive nonconference games against unranked teams.
“He was steady,” Ryan said of Kaminsky. “That’s an influence that’s always good to have on a team.”
With Wisconsin’s Big Ten opener less than three days away (hosting Penn State at noon CT on New Year’s Eve), the Badgers weren’t able to coast against the Bulls (7-3) in UW’s nonconference finale until the final minutes.
Shooting only 31.3 percent in the first 20 minutes, Wisconsin missed 13 of 14 shots at one point and were 6-for-22 before Traevon Jackson’s jumper at 8:53.
Rated No.30 in the RPI, the Bulls shot 40.7 percent and led the Badgers by as many as six points late in the first half and 27-26 at halftime. Playing its seventh true road game of its nonconference season and unintimidated by the less-than-full Kohl Center, Buffalo had its second halftime lead against a top-10 opponent this season (led No.1 Kentucky, 38-33, in Lexington Nov.16).
But just like when the Wildcats started the second half on a 9-0 run that eventually led them to a 71-52 victory, the Badgers found their shooting touch by making six of their first eight shots and scored 13 points on seven possessions to start second half.
Scoreless at halftime, Hayes facilitated the offense with a personal 7-0 run that eventually ballooned into a 13-0 UW run. Dekker also got things going after a scoreless first half, converting off an offensive rebound for his first points at 13:33 and started splashing 3-pointers minutes later, hitting three perimeter shots in an eight possession span.
The scoreless first-half duo combined for 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting in the second half.
“I thought we moved the ball better in the second half,” said Kaminsky. “We were moving, cutting, finding easy buckets, getting open shots. Once Sam hit those couple of threes, it kind of opened up pretty much everything else for everyone. I think it was more playing with energy in the second half. We were kind of dead in the first half, not really moving much. Once we started moving and playing with some energy, things opened up for us.”
Playing without third-leading scorer Jarryn Skeete (ankle), the Bulls put four players in double figures, including true freshman, and former Germantown guard, Lamonte Bearden (13 points), but had their shooting percentage dip to 29.6 percent in the second half when the size of UW made converting shots a challenge.
“I thought we were ready for the challenge,” said Buffalo coach Bobby Hurley. “Having played a team like Kentucky earlier in the year, the guys knew what to expect coming into this game and we got off to a good start, which is helpful … Not having Jarryn Skeete affected us a little bit.”
It might not be the sexiest victory of the season for Wisconsin, but it was one of the best ones to prepare Wisconsin for what’s to come in the next 18 games.
“They play with a chip on their shoulder every game so we’re going to get their best shot, just like they give their best shot to every team that they play,” said Hayes. “I think it was a good game for us to play going into the Big Ten. It wasn’t a cakewalk, which I think was good for us.”