With back-to-back, nationally-televised victories over perennial powers Michigan State and Indiana, the University of Wisconsin took a significant step towards a potential second consecutive Big Ten regular season championship.
Following a win over Michigan State Wednesday night, the Badgers maintained at least a share of first place with a 71-59 triumph over struggling Indiana at the Kohl Center Saturday afternoon.
Kirk Penney led the Badgers with 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting, while Mike Wilkinson finished with 16 points and six rebounds.
"I thought these two victories made a statement for our players," Coach Bo Ryan said. "It was huge."
Wisconsin (18-5, 8-3 Big Ten) remains undefeated in Big Ten home games during the Bo Ryan era, winning 14 in a row and 23 of its last 24. After starting 0-2 in conference action, the Badgers have won eight of their last nine games to climb into first place.
The Hoosiers (15-9, 5-6 Big Ten) have lost six of their last seven games, the lone exception a 63-49 victory over then first-place Michigan in Bloomington, Ind. Wednesday night.
After trailing the majority of the first half, the Badgers used an 11-0 run in the first 2:40 of the second half to take their first lead since the opening basket of the game. After going 1-for-8 in the first half, Devin Harris hit a 3-pointer on his first shot following the break, then capped the UW run with a swift pass to Alando Tucker for a layup to take the lead.
Wisconsin's stiff defense wouldn't allow Indiana to regain its lead, eliminating the Hoosiers' transition offense and forcing bad shots.
The Badgers looked like a different team in the second half, but Ryan said he couldn't take credit for a fire and brimstone speech that turned the tide.
"I didn't ram my head against the wall, beat on the marker board," Ryan said. "We just got back to the basics and said, this is what we do well…we made some subtle adjustments, but the halftime talk was pretty basic."
Indiana Coach Mike Davis, who was involved in heated discussions with the officials throughout the game, was issued a technical foul with 42.4 seconds remaining in the game. Penney hit two free throws to push the Badgers' lead to 65-56, ending the Hoosiers' comeback efforts.
"I've got two technical fouls and I've never said a curse word and never raised my voice," Davis said. "I told the (referee) he's getting old, and he called a technical."
The Hoosiers were led by Jeff Newton, who had 20 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.
Indiana senior Tom Coverdale, who entered the contest averaging 11.7 points per game, was held to just five points, hitting just 2-of-8 shots. Freshman Marshall Strickland had a career-high 17 points.
The Hoosiers started the game strong, taking a 29-21 lead at halftime with solid inside play, controlling the inside game on both ends of the floor.
While Indiana held a 19-14 advantage on the boards in the first half, the Hoosiers outscored the Badgers 14-2 inside the paint. Indiana didn't allow Wisconsin many easy looks inside, blocking three shots.
Indiana took a quick 11-6 lead behind three consecutive field goals by A.J. Moye. The Badgers struggled to find their rhythm early, shooting just 30 percent from the floor.
But after the quick spark following the break, the Badgers regained their touch, shooting 58.3 percent in the second half and 44 percent for the game.
Davis said when his team trailed by three points early in the second half, it acted like it was down 10 points. The Hoosiers' slacked off defensively, giving Wisconsin's top shooters some open looks, which they knocked down.
"My team doesn't believe me that defense is the problem for us, more than offense," Davis said. "When you (allow) 58 percent shooting in the second half, you're not going to beat people."
Indiana will play the second game of a three-game road trip Wednesday night at Iowa, while the Badgers will travel to Happy Valley to face Penn State, which remains winless in Big Ten action.
With just five games remaining in Wisconsin's regular season schedule, the Badgers are within striking distance of back-to-back league championships in Ryan's first two years as head coach in Madison.
"These were great wins for us, and we had to have them," Penney said. "We had to protect our home court and we did that. But we haven't won anything yet. This is all part of a journey. It's coming to a climax now."
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