Any remaining early season concerns about Wisconsin's offense can be safely put to rest.
The Badgers shot 50.7 percent from the floor, crashed the offensive glass with aplomb and did a solid job versus UW-Milwaukee's intense defensive pressure in claiming an 89-71 win. Wisconsin improved to 6-1 with the win, while the Panthers fell to 4-3.
The 89 points marked a season high for Wisconsin, which opened the year with a series of poor shooting performances but has now connected on better than 48 percent of its shots for three consecutive games.
"This is our third game against Wisconsin and this might be the best team that I've had and it also might be the best team Wisconsin's had," said coach Bruce Pearl, who is in his third year at UW-Milwaukee. "I was very impressed."
In a frenetically paced game, the Panthers full-court press gave the Badgers trouble at times, particularly during stretches in the second half when Wisconsin point guard Devin Harris was out of the lineup with foul trouble. The Badgers, though, turned it over just nine times. Harris had only one of those miscues and tied a career high with nine assists to go with 13 points.
"When they extended the way they did they…exposed themselves to the rim a little bit more than, for example, Maryland, who pressed us," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "So if you can get there then maybe force some fouls, maybe force some people out of position...we happened to get some pretty good looks in transition."
Milwaukee's offense, led by Dylan Page's 16 points, also had impressive success against a stingy Badger defense, but could not keep pace with Wisconsin.
"We felt like we could come in here today and win, we really did, but they were better," Pearl said. "They did a terrific job against our pressure and were able to turn the tempo up and finish. Offensively they really executed well and got whatever they wanted."
The teams traded five leads in the first half and Milwaukee forward Adam Tigert provided the game's sixth and final tie with a layup with eight minutes, 32 seconds left in the opening frame.
Following Tigert's basket, the Badgers received a boost from an unlikely source. Boo Wade, not a typical three-point threat for Wisconsin (1 for 10 prior to Saturday), hesitated momentarily, then knocked down an open shot from behind the arc, sparking a 13-2 run that pulled Wisconsin to a 34-23 advantage with four-and-a-half minutes left in the first half.
Milwaukee's Page momentarily slowed the run, but Ray Nixon followed Wade's shot with a three pointer of his own, giving Wisconsin a 27-23 lead. Wade, who led all scorers with nine points in the first half then hit a jump hook in the lane to build a six-point lead.
Three consecutive Panther turnovers led to the final five points of the run, with Zach Morley and Devin Harris hitting shots in the paint and Mike Wilkinson connecting on one of two free throws.
Wisconsin outscored Milwaukee 15-6 to open the second half, building a 58-38 lead four and a half minutes into the session. Tucker, who did not play in the first half, helped spark the run, coming off the bench at the 18:06 mark and scoring seven quick points.
The Panthers made two runs in the second half drawing to within nine points at one juncture, each spurt overlapping with times when Harris was out with foul trouble.
Milwaukee was in the midst of an 11-0 run when Harris' third personal sent Chris Hill to the line. Hill hit both free throws, pulling Milwaukee within 58-45 with just under 14 minutes to play. After Harris' departure, Panthers Mark Pancratz converted a layup but then just missed a three-point shot from the top of the key that could have drawn Milwaukee within eight points. Tigert converted a layup on the Panthers next possession, though, closing the gap to 58-49.
Badger guard Clayton Hanson, however, found Tucker under the basket for a layup to stem the tide. Following a Wilkinson basket in the paint, Hanson and Wilkinson hit consecutive three-point shots, giving the Badgers a 68-53 lead. Wisconsin continued to pour it on with two Wilkinson free throws extending the lead to 74-53 with seven minutes, 15 seconds left.
Harris picked up his fourth foul 35 seconds later, when he and Ed McCants were called for a double foul. Milwaukee picked up three steals in a minute and a half span to help pull within 76-62, but could not draw closer than 12 the rest of the way.
Wisconsin's half-court offense ran smoothly throughout the contest and Ryan substituted liberally, with nine players receiving double-digit minutes and five scoring in double figures. The team consistently found open shots, a product of ball movement that resulted in a season-high 22 assists.
"Our biggest problem with this basketball team is on the defensive end," Pearl said. "We said that going in and certainly that continues to be the case."
"What we try to do all the time just like everybody else does is try to make a team defensively have to show us what they are bringing every night," Ryan said. "And, you know, expose them."
When the Badgers were not connecting they were crashing the glass, picking up almost as many offensive rebounds (16) as Milwaukee had defensive (17).