The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team has shown the ability to flip a switch at halftime this season. That’s the good news for the Badgers.
The flip side to that is they’ve desperately needed some form of second-half electricity in multiple games, including the one Monday night at the Kohl Center.
Senior Ethan Happ was there to provide a spark, and he wasn’t alone in a 69-64 win over Rutgers that helped keep No. 12 UW unbeaten in the Big Ten through the first wave of conference play.
Happ finished with a game-high 20 points to help the Badgers (8-1, 2-0 Big Ten) avoid an embarrassing home loss on the same day they climbed 10 spots in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
UW trailed by double digits in the first half and by five at the break. Sluggish starts are nothing new for the Badgers, but they continued an early season trend by turning it on over the final 20 minutes.
After scoring 10 of his 14 points after halftime, including some big baskets down the stretch, sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice admitted UW can’t keep relying on one great half of play.
“We’re going to work on fixing that,” Trice said.
UW outscored Rutgers 43-33 after halftime. Through nine games, the Badgers have outscored their opponents 376-294 in the second half, an average margin of 9.1 points per game.
Rather than dwell on how his team has started games, UW coach Greg Gard chose to focus on how it’s been able to adjust and finish strong while playing a challenging schedule. The Badgers now have six wins over opponents from major conferences and will try to add another on Saturday when they visit in-state rival Marquette.
“You’re going to have to learn through the ebbs and flows,” Gard said. “It’s not going be as you want it all the time. It’s not going to be perfect, that’s the challenge of this time of the year to continue to try to get better when things don’t go well, regroup in a timeout, regroup on the floor, regroup at halftime and try to perform better the next time you have that opportunity.”
UW got 10 points from sophomore forward Nate Reuvers and nine from junior guard Brevin Pritzl, including four important free throws in the final minute to help hold off the Scarlet Knights (5-3, 0-2).
The Badgers also got a lift from Khalil Iverson. The senior forward didn’t exactly light up the box score – he finished with five points, four rebounds, two steals and a block – but Iverson played solid defense and constantly was doing positive things on both ends of the court after halftime.
In fact, it was two baskets by Iverson in the opening 39 seconds of the second half that began a 13-4 run for the Badgers. Happ added four points during the run, which included a 3-pointer from Reuvers and a putback from Pritzl and helped UW turn a five-point halftime deficit into a 39-35 lead.
“We always talk about the first five minutes of the game and the first five minutes of the second half and it’s even more crucial when we’re down,” Happ said. “So for Khalil to come out and give us that spark right way, that kind of (gave) us the momentum to get this win.”
UW shot 58.6 percent in the second half and went 4 of 8 from 3-point range. It only turned the ball over once in 32 possessions while averaging 1.34 points per possession after halftime.
But Gard said most of the discussion at halftime was about what UW needed to do on the other end. Namely, stop dribble penetration and stop giving up so many baskets near the rim.
“It was super important to finally get some stops on defense, which turned into good offense,” Trice said.
Rutgers did a good job of containing the red-hot Trice for most of the game. He only attempted two 3-pointers, but Trice made them both and was an efficient 6-for-9 overall from the field.
The Scarlet Knights were within 52-46 until Trice scored on consecutive possessions – including a 3-pointer from the right wing – off assists from Happ.
After Rutgers cut UW’s lead to 62-57 on a pair of free throws from Geo Baker with 1:37 left, Eugene Omoruyi was assessed a Flagrant 1 foul that sent Happ to the line for two free throws.
Happ missed them both, but UW retained possession and Trice drained a 3-pointer with 56.5 seconds remaining to give the Badgers an eight-point cushion.
“Tried to limit his touches,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said of Trice, who is shooting 60 percent from 3-point range this season (30 of 50). “You have a two-day prep, you can’t do a lot, you can’t really reinvent the wheel. We just tried to play good defense and try to make it as difficult for him to get clean looks. He’s terrific.”
Omoruyi scored 17 points and Baker added 15 points for Rutgers, which is picked to finish last in the Big Ten. If this is the worst team, it says a lot about the depth in the conference this season.
That’s precisely why Gard wasn’t making any apologies for a win that was far from perfect.
“It’s the Big Ten,” Gard said. “It’s going to be rough, it’s going to be competitive. It’s going to be one of the best leagues in the country, if not the best, in terms of the depth. This is how it’s going to be.”