Relying primarily on cuts towards the basket early on, Wisconsin jumped to a 36-6 lead with five minutes left in the first half and went on to defeat UW-River Falls by a score of 79-52 Saturday night at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers attempted just one three-pointer through the first 18 minutes and scored 20 points in the paint over that stretch. After building the 30-point advantage, the Badgers lead never dropped below 21. The Falcons, however, battled in the second half, matching Wisconsin point-for-point over the final 19 minutes.
Butch started at center alongside 6-foot-10 junior Jason Chappell to give the Badgers a significant size advantage on the low post. The big men were just two of the four new starters from the 2004-05 team. Senior forward Ray Nixon and junior guard Kammron Taylor also appeared in the starting lineup.
"It's not like I pulled five names out of a hat," Ryan said. "Those are the guys who have had better results so far."
All 15 players took to the hardwood for UW, including seven freshmen on a squad that features just one senior in Nixon.
Most notable of the freshmen was 6-7 Milwaukee native Marcus Landry, who scored 11 points in 16 minutes off the bench and showed exciting flashes that included a dunk with 8:50 remaining in the game, extending the Badger lead to 68-40.
Landry had another wide open opportunity just four possessions later on a fast break but lost control of the ball, which bounced off the inside of the rim and out of bounds.
Three possessions later, Landry learned from his mistake and opted to lay the ball in the hoop from close range rather than slam it with both hands. He also drew a foul and hit the free throw to make it a three-point play and give the Badgers a 29-point advantage.
"Marcus did a nice job," Ryan said. "If that was a learning experience that netted results in that short period of time, then he's going to be alright."
Just seconds later, Taylor and freshman DeAaron Williams combined for the Badgers' most electrifying play of the evening. Taylor stole the ball near mid-court and made for the rim, bouncing the ball hard off the backboard to a trailing Williams who ripped down a two-handed dunk. The play opened up the Badgers' largest lead on the night, 73-42.
Another Taylor steal on the following play gave the duo a chance to expand their highlight reel, but Taylor elected to take it himself and missed the lay-up with 4:13 remaining.
The Falcons were able to whittle a few points off the Badgers' lead after that, but fan favorite Tanner Bronson erupted the crowd with 1:46 remaining. He took the ball across the baseline and delicately placed a reverse lay-up over a River Falls defender to make it 77-47.
After a rebound on the following end, the Kohl Center student section let out a chant for the junior Bronson, which lasted throughout much of the remaining 1:18.
"That's good for the crowd to be enthused about things like Tanner," Tucker said. "To watch them score and watch them be out there and see their faces and see how the crowd responds – it's always great. It's great for the whole team."
River Falls put up 27 three-pointers in the face of a bigger and more athletic Wisconsin defense. The Falcons connected on just seven of them and shot just 32.8 percent from the field overall. They scored more than twice as many points in the second half as in the first, 35 to 17.
The first 20 minutes of struggle made the difference for the visitors. It took until 2:36 remaining in the first half for River Falls to reach double-digits in points. They did so on a three-pointer from Hans Hoeg that also gave the Falcons their first back-to-back scoring possessions of the game. The Badgers led 41-17 at the break.
"That was even with the little flurry we had there at the end," River Falls coach Rick Bowen said. "I was hoping we were going to be able to get into double digits."
Despite the score, the Badgers acknowledged the tenacity of the Division-III Falcons, who were outmatched from the beginning but continued to fight throughout. "You might look at the score and think the game wasn't tough, but they were solid," Tucker said. "Teams like this never want to give up, so the whole game they're going to play."
Ryan made reference to the benefit the Badgers receive from playing an exhibition against a school like River Falls. He said that the score did not indicate the level of competition throughout the game and the length to which the Badgers needed to work.
Specifically, Bowen elaborated on the difference between River Falls and other teams Wisconsin has played in previous years.
"I still believe playing a team like us is a whole heck of a lot better than playing an exhibition game against EA Sports or somebody like that," Bowen said. "Because we'll set screens, we'll run an offense, we'll do different things."
The Badgers return to action Monday, Nov. 14 when they play their second of two home exhibitions, this time against Lawrence at 7 pm.
Nixon said after the game that he was most impressed by the play of Krabbenhoft, who led all reserves with 17 minutes and scored just two points on 1-of-3 shooting but had two assists to go with his six boards. "He was a hustle guy," Nixon said. "He was in there on every possession. He was rebounding hard. He was defending well. I think he really did a good job tonight."
Freshman Mickey Perry entered the game with 6:11 remaining in the first half but was yanked out before play even started because he had not tucked in his jersey. "He came out on the court thinking it was the NBA," Ryan said. "Mickey just got a little confused. But he's a good kid and he came back and got himself ready to play."
After attempting just one three-point shot through the first 18:19 of the game, the Badgers then attempted shots from behind the arc on eight of their next ten offensive possessions, extending over to the second half.
In opening up a 26-4 lead, Wisconsin did not commit a turnover until the 8:30 mark in the first half. However, the Badgers turned the ball over more than the Falcons after that point, 13 to 12.
Ryan was happy with the team's start, but said they need to perform like that over an entire game. "But can you do that for 40 (minutes)?" Ryan said. "There are teams we play this year where we are going to have to do it for 40 if we expect to be on the (winning) side. A start is good, but I like to finish."
Each of Wisconsin's 15 players entered the game in the first half. Only freshman Morris Cain played less than four minutes in the game.
Sophomore center Greg Stiemsma entered the game 3:56 into the first half and made an immediate impact. He assisted on a Brian Butch lay-up on his first offensive play and then scored on jumpers in consecutive possessions. He finished 3-for-6 with six points in 12 minutes.
Wisconsin shot just 64 percent from the free throw line compared to 83.3 percent for the Falcons.
Nixon scored just five points but added five assists and did not turn the ball over once. "I think he gave us a big boost," Tucker said. "He's a senior and guys are going to look towards what he does on the court — is he productive every time he's on the floor. They look up to older guys. Coming in he's set a tone just by being solid and not turning the ball over and not forcing the issue."