MADISON – The 3-point shot has suddenly befriended the University of Wisconsin and not a moment too soon.
A sluggish night was rescued by the perimeter jump shot, as the Badgers scored 33 points from behind the arc to distance itself from Nebraska in the second half in a 72-61 victory at the Kohl Center.
With the toughest part of their schedule now on the horizon, playing three of its next four on the road and all against teams currently ranked in the top 10, the Badgers (15-9, 7-4 Big Ten) extended their winning streak to six thanks to going 11-for-18 from the perimeter against the Huskers, including 7-for-12 in the second half.
“We’re just taking advantage of the way that people are playing us,” said forward Nigel Hayes. “Going back to the beginning of the year, we weren’t the best team with our spacing. That was a problem for us … We just make sure that we’re always ready to shoot as we can always shoot the ball.”
And surprisingly, the biggest weapon for the Badgers was junior Vitto Brown, who continues his sudden resurgence with a career-high 18 points that included a career-high three 3-pointers. A 28.2 percent 3-point shooter entering the night, Brown had made only three 3-pointers the entire Big Ten season, but hit two big ones in the first half when UW’s stagnate offense needed a boost.
He also dabbled around the rim, taking a feed from forward Alex Illikainen for a one-handed right hand slam to put the Badgers up 53-40 with 9:32 to go. It was the largest lead in the game to that point and finally injected some life into what had been a stagnate building.
“It got the crowd involved and we definitely got some momentum after that,” said Brown. “I think we never really looked back after that point.”
Are the Badgers suddenly a jump shooting team? Well, a team that was shooting only 33.3 percent from 3-point range from the perimeter at the middle of last week is now 24-for-45 (53.3 percent) in its last two games to raise its overall percentage .22 points.
“The word is out that we like to touch the post,” said head coach Greg Gard. “We kept it a secret as long as we could, but now it’s out … For us to be unselfish and patience enough to touch the post and be able to kick the ball out, a lot of those three we shot and made were with our toes pointed toward the rim.”
Hayes led all scorers with 20, Bronson Koenig had 12 and Zak Showalter finished with 10 to help Wisconsin stay in sixth place the Big Ten (three out of first, half game out of fourth) with seven games to go.
Brown and Hayes carried the offense through a sloppy first half in which shooting was sluggish against Nebraska’s 2-3 zone, ball control was spotty and defense was inconsistent. The two juniors split Wisconsin’s first 16 points, combined for 22 of UW’s 30 first-half points and didn’t get help from another source until Jordan Hill’s 3-pointer with 6:55 remaining.
The entire offense came alive after halftime. Following a layup by Glynn Watson Jr. (team-high 16 points) to cut the lead to 30-28, Wisconsin hit four 3-pointers on the next five possessions to push the lead to 10. Over the final 16-plus minutes, UW’s lead never dipped below six and stayed in double figures for the final 11:32.
“We don’t have any selfish guys who want to get their own shots,” said Hayes. “We know we’re just going to play within the team game.”
Playing without second-leading scorer Shavon Shields (concussion), Nebraska (13-12, 5-7) brought more energy than Wisconsin in long stretches but still struggled to put the ball in the hoop. Without a second scoring threat, UW bogged down Andrew White and his 17.2 points per game, holding him to 10 on 5-for-11, and held the Huskers to its lowest point total in conference play.
Nebraska has failed to score 65 points in seven of the eight meetings against UW since joining the Big Ten in 2011 (0-7).
“Their points in the paint, their rebounding and their foul shots we weren’t going to be able to keep up with,” said Nebraska coach Tim Miles. “We tried to mix in zone and then they go on to make 10 of their first (14) threes. There’s only so many things you can take away.”
After putting together multiple complete performances, Wisconsin took a step back in the first half with Nebraska being more active to loose balls and more aggressive underneath the rim. Example? UW was outmuscled by 6-10 Jake Hammond and out hustled by the 5-9 Benny Parker to loose balls.
The play was more even in the second half, as the Badgers got sparks from a number of outlets to get to the finish line.
“To be able to maybe not play in sync or be as sharp as we’ve been in the past and still be able to find a way is a sign of maturity of our team to be able to rally, pick each other up and move forward,” said Gard.