His team still led by two points with just less than three minutes before halftime, but Gard – having harped on the lack of defensive presence and slow rotation in every media timeout leading up to that point - could not go another possession without addressing the issues yet again.
“I wasn’t happy much in the first half,” Gard said.
With a couple halftime corrections, Gard’s mood – and the course of the change – shifted dramatically.
For the fourth straight game No.15 Wisconsin shot over 50 percent from the field in the second half, finding a rhythm offensively and providing a stiffer test defensively to turned a three-point halftime lead into an 82-55 victory at the Kohl Center.
Bronson Koenig (20 points), Vitto Brown (16) and Ethan Happ (14, eight rebounds) all reached double figures for the Badgers (17-3, 6-1 Big Ten), which kept pace with Maryland at the top of the Big Ten conference by shooting 55.6 percent in the second half to beat the Nittany Lions (11-10, 3-5) for the ninth straight time.
Playing against a team that rotated in two freshmen forwards, Wisconsin used its experience in the low post to finish plus-14 on the glass, plus-9 in second-chance points and had a 28-10 edge in points in the paint. When the Badgers weren’t making field goals they were making free throws. Leading at the break based largely on making more free throws (10) than Penn State attempted (four), UW finished 21-for-29 from the line, while Penn State finished 8-for-12.
On a 13-2 run to begin the second half, Wisconsin pounded the paint and used good ball movement to knock down a pair of 3-pointers.
“We need to learn how to respond to runs by great teams,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said. “I don't think we responded like we normally have.”
The final margin was Wisconsin’s biggest over Penn State since 2003 but didn’t appear headed that way through 20 minutes.
A young team playing with a lot of spunk and toughness, Penn State played a near perfect opening 20 minutes offensively with its shot making, ball movement and transition opportunities. Thirteenth in the conference in scoring offense and field goal percentage, Penn State hit seven of its first 11 shots, shot 52.2 percent (12 of 23) and went 6 of 10 from 3-point range.
The final box score lists only four fast-break points for Penn State in the first half. By Gard’s count there was 13.
“We emphasis that quite heavily,” Gard said. “We had to recheck ourselves at halftime a little bit.”
With some self-policing in the locker room, a big benefit of having a veteran-laden team, the Nittany Lions cooled down, missing 11 of their first 13 shots and shot just 26.9 percent (7 of 26). More importantly, Wisconsin gave up zero transition points in the final 20 minutes by making the Nittany Lions settle for tougher looks in their base offense.
It also helped that the Badgers – more often than not – put the ball in the bucket.
“People go off on us at halftime and telling us that we’re not taking care of business like we should be,” Brown said. “We kind of refocus up and take care of that in the second half.”
Much like Wisconsin’s 78-76 overtime victory at Minnesota Saturday, Wisconsin came out feeding the ball to Happ in the low post. The sophomore scored seven of his points in the first four minutes by attacking the low post and the Penn State freshmen.
The shots started pouring in from there, as Wisconsin averaged 1.39 points per possession by scoring 16 points in the paint, 15 from the 3-point line and 11 from the free throw line.
“Anytime you are hitting shots from the outside, it obviously helps, but most times what opens that up is us being able to produce on the inside,” Happ said. “We really didn’t do that as much in the first half. We tried to make that a point of emphasis in the second half, and that opened up a lot of shots for guys and they knocked them down.”
Tony Carr and Payton Banks led Penn State with 12 points but the Badgers held Shep Garner (12.3 ppg) and Lamar Stevens (11.6) to 5-for-17 from the floor.
“We played a good 20 minutes,” Chambers said. “Against great teams it’s a 40 minute game.”
“Our inexperienced in the second half,” he added. “I thought we did some good things in the first half defensively, and then they just exploited our weaknesses in the second half.”