LAS VEGAS — The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team’s defeat of No. 12 Houston in the semifinal round of the Maui Invitational is just an early taste of what could be expected from the Badgers this season.
Facing the Cougars, the Badgers (4-1) had their first chance to see how they matched up against a high-performing team and they proved up to the challenge, holding on for a 65-63 victory and a berth in Wednesday’s championship game.
UW coach Greg Gard said the team is still figuring out its identity, but defeating an AP Top-25 team could mean good things for the season. He said the win came down to the Badgers’ dominant performance in the first half and resiliency in the second half.
“We had a great first half and we were able to do enough to hold on in the second half,” Gard said. “I think for this group to go through these types of experiences and have success on top of what we're learning and growing as this is happening is a great credit to these guys and their teammates back in the locker room.”
The Badgers had a slow start to Monday’s tournament-opening win over Texas A&M and needed to come out strong against Houston. They did, outscoring the Cougars 40-20 in the first half and building a lead large enough to survive the inevitable second-half run by Houston.
UW shot 57.1% from the field and 46.7% from 3-point range before halftime. Johnny Davis was three points away from tying his career high of 21 points with 20 minutes left to play, and he would go on to finish with a new career high of 30 points. Houston would double up at the post and on the ball screen, but UW utilized its depth as six different players scored in the first half.
Houston entered Tuesday’s game holding teams to 35.1% overall, 28.4% from 3-point range and giving up 55 points a game. The Badgers finished with 46.9% overall, 29.2% from 3-point range and with 65 points.
“We have a number beside our name, they don't,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said about being shut down in the first half. “Teams that don't have a number are head hunting and they came out and got after us. And they're good. I'm not interested in other people's opinion of whether Wisconsin's good or not, I make my own decision. They're good.”
A huge part of UW’s game plan was to limit Houston’s leading scorer, Marcus Sasser. The strategy proved successful as the Badgers held him to 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting.
Gard said the assignment to guard Sasser fell mostly to freshmen Chucky Hepburn and Lorne Bowman. The Badgers defense forced Sasser to turn the ball over four times in the first half alone.
“That's a heck of an education for a couple freshmen,” Gard said. “To play that type of experience against this type of team with the physicality and athleticism and speed it can only help them. There were mistakes made. … You can live with the mistakes. You just learn from them.”
The Cougars were more solid on both ends of the floor in the last 20 minutes, while the Badgers couldn’t get shots to fall. Houston outscored UW 43-25 in the second half while allowing only three Badgers to score.
“They got super aggressive,” junior forward Tyler Wahl said. “Playing from behind it's always easy to get up into people's shorts and we weren't hitting shots. We were getting open looks, just not knocking them down like we were in the first half.”
Wahl stepped up as he went head-to-head with Houston senior forward Reggie Chaney on both ends. At least six of Wahl's nine points came from attacking on the post and getting to the rim.
He was also aggressive in fighting for loose balls and rebounds, finishing with a game-high seven boards.
Sampson said it was frustrating because Wahl killed much of the Cougars’ second half momentum as he got to the basket.
“[Wahl] made big, big shots,” Sampson said. “Every time we were getting on top of 'em, he made a couple big shots.”
The aggressiveness also comes with a disadvantage that could hurt UW down the stretch. Gard had to play a deeper, less experienced bench in the second half as three of the team’s more experienced players got in foul trouble — something that hurt the Badgers against Providence on Nov. 15.
Sophomore forward Steven Crowl showed some awareness after he got his second foul and started playing it safe. He was still attacking the rim for rebounds but would back off to avoid drawing another foul.
UW will need the fight it showed against the Cougars come Big Ten play. The Badgers proved they can beat a ranked team, but three Big Ten teams are currently ranked and will be a challenge.
Photos: Wisconsin Badgers upset Houston Cougars to reach Maui Invitational final