With first-place Indiana falling on the road to Minnesota earlier in the night, the stage was set for Wisconsin to get back in the Big Ten title hunt.
And boy, did they ever.
Benefitting from a career night for freshman Sam Dekker and woeful shooting by its opponent, Wisconsin bested Nebraska in a 77-46 blowout Tuesday night at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers (20-8, 11-4 Big Ten) held the Huskers (13-15, 4-11 Big Ten) to just 23 points in each half, sealing a victory that pulled Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan’s team within one game of first place in the conference.
“I think we’re playing at a high level right now,” senior Jared Berggren said. “We’re just hitting shots right now. We’re also making hard cuts, being efficient defensively. We’re getting on the same page here and playing hard.
“Hopefully we can close things out in the Big Ten and get the help we need to be able to get a piece of the title.”
Dekker tied his career high at Wisconsin with 19 points on 5-of-6 shooting, converting four of his five three-point attempts and dishing out four assists. Leading all scorers was Nebraska senior point guard Dylan Talley with 21 points, almost half of the Huskers’ total offense in the game.
Nebraska, the Big Ten’s lowest scoring team, was held 15 points below its season average of 59, a credit to a stingy Wisconsin defense that kept its opponent to just 32.8 percent shooting from the floor.
“Talley and [Ray] Gallagos. There aren’t two guys in the league on the same team that I feel are as good as those two in terms of explosiveness,” Ryan said. “I thought we played extremely well to do what we did tonight.”
It was a disappointing performance for first-year Nebraska head coach Tim Miles, whose team was coming off the third biggest comeback win in school history after erasing a 19-point deficit against Iowa Saturday.
“I really questioned my ability to get our guys ready to compete tonight,” Miles said. “You could see that every time [Wisconsin] scored it affected our energy level. You just can’t play like that, you have to be more competitive.
“That was really disappointing tonight.”
Behind 59.3 percent shooting from the field in the first half, the Badgers amassed a commanding 44-23 lead at halftime. But, having the context of Nebraska’s Saturday comeback in fresh memory, Wisconsin offered no glimpse of a comeback.
On the Huskers’ first offensive possession of the second half, Berggren swatted a shot by Talley back into the guard’s face.
At one point in the first half, Nebraska held an 11-10 lead, but eight quick points from Dekker led the Wisconsin run that gave the Badgers a lead they never relinquished.
The Badgers used a 14-0 run midway through the game’s first 20 minutes to put themselves firmly in the driver’s seat. Dekker finished the first half with 13 points and went 3-of-4 from beyond the arc to lead Wisconsin.
But Talley went on a personal 7-0 run of his own to answer the Badgers, helping to narrow his team’s deficit between the five and three minute mark to 35-21 and instilled a brief but fleeting burst of energy into the downtrodden Huskers.
“I thought our two seniors, Brandon Ubel and Dylan Talley, came out ready to compete, but I’m not sure anybody else was at that level,” Miles said. “I think there’s a bit of immaturity or a lack of understanding where we are in the world sometimes.”
Besides Ubel, who finished with 10 points, and Talley, no Husker finished with double digits in scoring, as second-leading scorer Gallegos managed just six points and reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week Shavon Shields went just 1-for-7 on the night.
“We just have to take it one game at a time and take care of business,” Berggren said. “We have two more on the road. We have to just try to take care of business.”
NOTES: Wisconsin senior center Jared Berggren recorded three blocks in the first half and four on the night, moving him into sole possession of the all-time mark in school history. Berggren passed former Badger Rashard Griffin for the record and now has 126 career blocks. … Nebraska allowed Wisconsin to shoot 59.3 percent in the first half. Heading into Tuesday night’s game, the Huskers had the worst field goal percentage defense in the Big Ten, allowing opponents to shoot an average of 42 percent. … Wisconsin’s 44 first-half points were the most for the team in the first half of a conference game this year. … Entering the game Wisconsin was seventh in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and recorded 19 assists to eight turnovers Tuesday night. … Entering the game, Nebraska’s defense had allowed just 62.7 points per game this season. The team gave up over 70 percent of that to Wisconsin in the first half at the Kohl Center Tuesday night.