MADISON - All Northwestern head coach Chris Collins could do was fold his arms and watch. Trying to have his young roster stop Wisconsin’s veterans at this point is becoming like a Rubik’s Cube that’s already been mangled.
Wisconsin did not shoot the lights out, but the balance the Badgers displayed was too much for Northwestern to defend in a 65-50 UW victory Saturday at the Kohl Center.
Sam Dekker and Bronson Koenig scored 16 points to lead the four players in double figures for the Badgers (21-2, 9-1 Big Ten), which begin the second half of Big Ten play with a two-game lead over Maryland after winning six straight and 14 of their last 15.
“It’s just a bunch of guys who are veterans, all junior and seniors, who love playing with each other, know each other inside and out,” said Collins. “They play basketball the way it’s meant to be played, and that’s a good thing.”
And while the final score looks ugly, there were plenty of bright spots to pick up among the mess.
Making his 127th career start, breaking a tie with Alando Tucker for most in school history, senior Josh Gasser grabbed a season-high nine rebounds (seven in the first half) while adding eight points, three assists and no turnovers.
Koenig’s point total set a career high for a second straight game and he did most of his damage by going 4-for-8 from 3-point range. Since being inserted in the starting lineup, Koenig is 18-for-34 (52.9 percent) from the perimeter.
“He didn't force any shots,” UW coach Bo Ryan said of Koenig. “I thought he hit some big 3s as we were moving the ball. You have to take what the defense gives you and if they’re going to pinch everything and try to keep the ball out of the middle of that zone, you have to knock some outside shots down. He hit some big ones for us. He didn’t panic out there.”
Dekker scored 11 of his points in the first half as Wisconsin led by as many as 18. In five career games against Northwestern, Dekker has scored in double figures each time.
Wisconsin finished at only 38.9 percent but accomplished its game plan by finishing near 1.2 points per possession to equal the 2006-07 team for the best 23-game start in program history.
“It’s a testament to our shooting ability,” said forward Nigel Hayes (11 points, 8 rebounds). “We work hard on that during practice, at the end of practice, and it’s great to see that. It doesn’t look like it was 1.2, the way we moved the ball, share the ball with one another and get open shots shows a very unselfish team that’s capable of knowing down shots.”
Losers of nine straight, including the first five by a combined 17 points, Northwestern (10-13, 1-9) tried throwing a 2-3 zone at Wisconsin. When that didn’t work the Wildcats went back to man-to-man. When that didn’t work either, allowing the Badgers to open the game on a 19-4 run, Collins didn’t have to worry about his team processing another close conference loss.
Northwestern – which was led by Alex Olah’s 15 points - have lost twice to Wisconsin by a combined 38 points and seven other conference teams by 41.
The zone – something Collins admitted his team doesn’t do a lot of – limited the possessions but didn’t handcuff Wisconsin’s rebounding ability. The Badgers finished plus-14 on the boards and turned 13 offensive rebounds into 13 second-chance points.
“Coach always tells us to attack the glass when we see opportunities,” said Dekker, who leads UW with 23 offensive boards in conference play. “Especially against the zone, there’s always some lanes to get in there and it’s tough to rebound out of it. Me, Nigel, and Frank going to the glass puts the defense on their heels and makes their job tougher to get another stop.”
The Wildcats also had seven fouls to six points in the first 10 minutes, 20 seconds, racking up six whistles in 43 seconds.
Save for a 3:57 stretch where Northwestern’s 9-0 run cut the Badgers’ lead from 17 to eight, UW was never threatened, especially since the Badgers responded with a 12-4 run to end the half.
The one negative Wisconsin could pick out over its recent dominance has been the lapses in defense. Although Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in scoring defense (56.6 per game), the Badgers have allowed an opponent to shoot over 60 percent four times in the past six games, including three of the past four.
The results were better this time. When Northwestern tried to limit the possessions and slow the game, Wisconsin never let the Wildcats cut the lead under 11 by limiting Northwestern to only 20 second-half shots (eight fewer than the first half), making the Wildcats the 16th team unable to score at least 60 against the Badgers.
It’s a good number, but one that isn’t satisfying a team on a march toward championships.
“We’ve got to get better, absolutely, if we want to achieve what we want to achieve,” said Gasser. “Unless we shut a team out, Coach Ryan is not going to be happy and we’re not going to be happy.”