MADISON – A role player throughout his first three seasons at Wisconsin, Zak Showalter has admitted that moving to a full-time starting role has taken a period of adjustment. With conference play in its infancy and UW still looking for consistent scorers, Showalter showed that he’s more than just an energizer.
Showalter’s scoring and hustle ignited runs in the first and second half for Wisconsin, which needed the lift from the junior guard to get past Rutgers, 79-57, Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center in a game that was tighter than the final score indicated.
Finishing its seven game homestand 4-3 and on a high note against one of the two Big Ten teams that defeated them a year ago, Wisconsin (9-6, 1-1 Big Ten) got a career-high 21 points from Showalter to lead three players in double figures.
“We’ve got a lot of guys over the years that resemble Zak Showalter in terms of how he plays,” said head coach Greg Gard, who won his first Big Ten game after taking over from Bo Ryan Dec.15. “Tenacity, toughness, the effort, the attitude he brings every day in practice. You see him fly around the floor taking charges … he was active.”
The 6-2 junior entered the day shooting 42.9 percent and averaging 7.7 points, but was a perfect 8-for-8 from the field, including 4-for-4 from 3-point range and made his only free throw, but opened up many avenues to score points that ended up being critical.
In the first half alone, he skied for an athletic block that took a layup away from D.J. Foreman, rebounded a Bronson Koenig miss for an easy putback and stole a pass from freshman Corey Sanders at the top of the key that led to an easy layup.
“That has to remain our DNA,” said Gard. “We need to play hard. That’s part of playing hard.”
With Koenig chipping in 14 points and four assists, including a perfectly executed alley-oop pass to Khalil Iverson for a slam, and getting bench production from Jordan Hill and Jordan Smith, UW’s backcourt scored a season-high 43 points.
“I had a lot of open looks tonight; that helps to go 8-for-8,” said Showalter. “My teammates did a good job attacking the paint and kicking it out to me. Coach also says 10 toes facing the rim and you can knock it down, so I felt good.”
Rutgers (6-9, 0-2), which has now lost 17 consecutive Big Ten games, opened the second half on an 8-1 run, cutting a double-digit lead down to 43-39 with 15:51 remaining by taking advantage of UW’s sluggish offense (0-for-7 from the field) and lapses defensively.
Showalter broke that funk when he drove to the basket off the dribble, converted at the rim and drew a foul to ignite a spark. Over the next six minutes, Wisconsin went on an 18-4 run that was comprised of consistent post touches that led to success in the interior and kick outs to wide-open shooters.
“I turned the corner and really it’s my option to get to the rim,” said Showalter of his 3-point play. “I saw a lane and I took it. We had to get something going to the rim. We were getting a little jump-shot happy. I think that really stated to get us in a rhythm.”
The other big story was Wisconsin’s rebounding. Giving up 38.9 rebounds per game, 13th in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights saw Wisconsin grab the first nine rebounds before they grabbed its first at the 12:58 mark.
Wisconsin’s 37-25 edge on the boards included eight offensive rebounds, eight second-chance points and 34 points in the paint, not to mention the amount of open mid-range and perimeter jumpers UW created by touching the post.
“Their size, in different ways, hurts you,” said Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan. “Not directly throw it into the post and power it at the rim, but we have to help in (and) we can’t get out quick enough to shooters. They move the ball, they move themselves and I was proud of my guys for having a good 30 minutes and then it cracked open because we wore down with their size.”
Tied at 12 after a sluggish first eight minutes, Wisconsin emerged from the timeout touching the post and hitting shots because of it. The Badgers went 7-for-9 from the field over the next 4:37, going on a 15-4 run that opening up a double-digit lead despite Nigel Hayes and Koenig scoring only two of the points.
“In our earlier games this year, there were points where Bronson and I weren’t scoring the majority of the points and we were stagnate on offense and not scoring,” said Hayes, who finished with eight. “Now we’ve come to the point, I guess what a better time than now starting Big Ten, for Bronson and I not to really impact offensively and other guys to pick us up.”
Happ was a big benefactor of the rebounding feast. Shaking off a two-point performance in the 61-55 loss to No.14 Purdue Tuesday, finishing just 1-for-8 from the field, Happ had seven points, five rebounds and a block in the first 12 minutes and finished with his fifth double-double of the season with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Despite picking up two fouls in the first five minutes in the first half and his third foul a little more than three minutes into the second, Gard, unlike his predecessor, didn’t let Happ sit for long. That result of that decision netted Happ roughly half his points.
“It’s nice to know your coach has your back like that,” said Happ. “I was frustrated after fouling, but he was gracious enough to put me back in.”