STATE COLLEGE, PA – After registering its biggest win of the season, the University of Wisconsin almost let a tricky road test spoil its momentum.
In a historically tough arena for the program, the Badgers jumped out to a quick double digit lead and held it for the majority of the game until the final minutes in a 66-60 victory over Penn State at Bryce Jordan Arena Thursday.
Freshman Ethan Happ registered a career-high 20 points and 11 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the season for Wisconsin (11-9, 3-4 Big Ten), which led by double digits for the first 15+minutes of the second half to extend its winning streak over Penn State (11-9, 2-5) to eight.
“At times we were good down the stretch and other times, both offensively and defensively, we have things we’ll have to get better at,” said head coach Greg Gard. “Having been in this league a long time and been around it, road wins are hard to get. We’ve had some squeakers in here.”
In the last five trips to Penn State, Wisconsin had gone 4-1 in games separated by 5.2 points per contest. Even last year’s Badgers team, the one that was the most efficient offense in the history of the N.C.A.A., struggled to an eight-point win on 39.2 percent shooting.
So with UW cruising out to a 17-point lead with 7:10 to go, a lead the Badgers built by touching the post and playing inside out, Gard knew better, even though UW notched 13 offensive rebounds and outscored Penn State, 24-12 in the paint.
UW’s young team got away from the post touches down the stretch, a problem compounded when Penn State started hitting shots and went on a 15-3 run. After trailing by double digits for 14 minutes, 53 seconds of the second half, Penn State cut the lead to 52-47 with 3:16 remaining.
But Nigel Hayes – who was 3-for-11 at the time – hit a huge 3-pointer to boost the lead back to eight, giving the Badgers their first field goal in 5:38. In the final 2:50, Hayes scored seven of his 15 points.
And while Penn State did cut the lead to three with 30 seconds remaining, the Badgers – who went 2-for-10 from the field the final 8:12 – went 8-for-12 from the line in their final six possessions to preserve the lead.
After going 29-for-36 from the free throw line in the win over Michigan State, Wisconsin went 22-for-35 against Penn State.
“We needed them,” said Gard of the free throws. “We would have liked to shot the line a little better and close the door a little sooner, but any time you can get one on the road this season, you’ll take it.”
Carrying the momentum from his game-winning shot against Michigan State, Happ scored 10 points in the first half, four of which came during an early 11-0 run that gave UW a lead in the first three minutes it wouldn’t relinquish.
With starters in foul trouble, freshman Alex Illikainen provided a huge lift off the bench with nine points on 4-for-5 shooting (all in the first half), including a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to give UW a 27-19 lead.
“He was really good,” said Gard. “I thought he was really poised around the rim. When we were able to attack their zone, he got a lot of things in behind (their defense). He has a nose for the ball and finds it.”
Brandon Taylor had 13 points – all in the second half - to lead the four Penn State players in double figures, as the Nittany Lions shot 39.3 percent and committed 13 turnovers.
“We made them work,” said Gard. “We want to make sure your offense helps your defense.”