MADISON – The only home game in an 18-day span wasn’t as easy as anticipated for the University of Wisconsin.
Facing a 29.5-point underdog in Prairie View A&M, a team the Badgers had beaten by 44 points in 2010 and 37 in 2013, Wisconsin was in the familiar position of getting pushed by a mid-major program at the Kohl Center.
Wisconsin managed to scrap together enough plays late to earn an 85-67 victory over the Panthers, but the performance was anything but reassuring for a team about to hit the road again with a pair of games in hostile environments at Oklahoma (Sunday) and Syracuse (Wednesday).
“It’s definitely a grind going from game to game, practice to practice, like this,” said freshman Ethan Happ, who finished with 12 points and was one six Badgers in double figures. "... It's a challenge."
The Panthers (0-5) came in as one of the worst offensive teams in the country, averaging 58.2 points per game, but were exploding off the bench once Tevin Bellinger delivered a layup to cut the lead to 44-42. Bronson Koenig (team-high 16 points) hit a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession but there was an uneasiness in the building during a media timeout.
Prairie View shot 60.9 percent from the field in the first half and made three of its first five shots in the second half.
“That was one of the worst defensive performances I’ve had, honestly, (in the first half),” said junior Zak Showalter.
On the first possession following the timeout, Happ drove to the lane, converted at the rim through contact and made the free throw. Over the next nine possessions Wisconsin scored 13 points to cap a 19-6 run, given them all the breathing room they would need.
Showalter was one of the key ingredients for Wisconsin starving off another shocking home upset. The junior scored a career-high 14 points, including 11 in the first half, and filled the stat sheet.
Another key contributor was freshman Charlie Thomas, who managed only a steal in five first-half minutes but finished with 12 points, six rebounds, an assist, a block and no turnovers.
“He’s adjusting to a role,” said Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan of Thomas. “We’ve talked about that with a lot of these freshmen … Charlie is obviously a guy who had more touches and had more effective on the game in high school, but he’s not in high school anymore, so it’s going to take some time.”
Bellinger scored 21 points to lead the Panthers, who were eventually done in by the free throw line. Prairie View A&M committed 27 team fouls, leading to Wisconsin going 21-for-26 from the line.
“It was hard to get into a rhythm with these new basketball rules they have that is supposed to excite the game,” said Prairie View head coach Byron Rimm.
The Panthers committed 14 turnovers and 14 team fouls in the first half, but trailed only 42-36 thanks to going 7-for-9 from 3-point range. Coming into the game shooting just 22.6 percent from the perimeter, the Panthers had three different players make a 3-point bucket, including Bellinger going 3-for-5.
It’s the fourth time this season the Badgers have allowed a team to make at least seven 3-pointers in a game, let alone a half.
Things were better in the second half, as the Panthers attempted only two 3-pointers in the second half as they tried to get the ball into the low post.
Wisconsin’s interior size made that a mistake, as the Badgers out rebounded the visitors, 20-12, and outscored them, 22-12, in the paint in the second half.