Overshadowed by rookie seasons from Wisconsin’s frontcourt contributors and by the steady presence of Jordan Taylor, Josh Gasser has played his way through a relatively quiet sophomore season.
Sunday afternoon at the Kohl Center, however, Gasser provided the No. 15 Badgers (20-7, 9-5 Big Ten) a considerable spark with a 3-for-6 shooting effort which netted a team-high 15 point points in a 65-55 win over the Penn State Nittany Lions (12-16, 4-11 Big Ten). Most of Gasser’s baskets came from three-point range, and he added six points from the free throw line.
With the emergence of Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren as viable offensive weapons in the post, Wisconsin’s backcourt has often taken on a secondary presence on the stat sheet aside from Taylor’s team-leading totals in points and assists.
But as head coach Bo Ryan asserted following the Badgers’ second win in four games, Gasser was never intentionally forced into a lower-profile role.
“He was open [Sunday],” Ryan said. “He’s never been told not to shoot when he’s open. He has a different trigger than some guys; he knows he doesn’t have the quickest release, but it’s not the slowest. He found himself in position to make some things happen.”
Ryan also labeled Gasser as “opportunistic,” a trait that was noticeable in the first half Sunday, where the Port Washington, Wis., native scored 11 of his 15 points. Beginning at the 9:33 mark with the Badgers nursing a 15-9 lead, Gasser nailed three consecutive three-pointers that had Wisconsin leading 24-11 with eight minutes remaining in the first half.
His final two points of the half came from the free throw line in the seconds leading up to halftime, which UW entered holding a 35-21 lead.
“You’re worried about [Taylor], you’re worried about [Evans],” PSU head coach Pat Chambers said of his team’s defensive approach. “When you have Gasser and [Mike] Bruesewitz and Berggren hitting shots, they’re a tough team to beat.”
All four of Gasser’s second-half points came from the free throw line, which the Badgers seemed to make a collective effort to reach more frequently than in recent games. After getting to the line only 17 times combined in its last two losses against Michigan State and Ohio State, Wisconsin shot that many free throws Sunday against Penn State, hitting 14 (82.4 percent).
For a team that’s proven its willingness to live and die by perimeter shooting — consequently limiting the likely number of free throw attempts — a more aggressive approach seemed to benefit the Badgers against the Nittany Lions.
“Coming into the game, I was really trying to be more aggressive offensively and just trying to make plays, whether it was for myself or my teammates,” Gasser said. “I just found myself open. Those are shots I know I’m going to have to take because those are probably going to be the best shots we’re going to get in the possession.
“I was fortunate enough to knock them down, and I’ve just got to keep playing with that aggressiveness going on and it’ll help our team.”
With Gasser leading Wisconsin’s offense Sunday, Taylor, Evans and Berggren were able to slide into more secondary roles. Taylor finished with 11 points and four assists, while Evans added 11 points himself and nine rebounds. Berggren finished with 13 points and six rebounds, and the Badgers also received seven points, 12 rebounds and five assists from Bruesewitz.
The balanced scoring effort paid dividends in a game where Wisconsin was in control throughout, leading by as many as 20 points midway through the second half. Penn State did not fold easily, however, coming within five points of the lead with just under six minutes to go.
But with several Badgers finding their stroke in an effort that stymied Chambers’ defensive approach, the game never fell out of control.
“Any time you can have multiple weapons out there who can score, it’s going to help your team,” Gasser said. “I think the games that we’ve played our best offensively have been games where it’s been pretty spread-out scoring. We’ve had multiple guys in double figures, and any time that can happen it takes a lot of pressure off [Taylor] and [Berggren].”