They usually refer to football as a “game of inches,” but the Wisconsin-Marquette game took that theme to the basketball court Saturday.
For much of the game, the No. 8 Badgers (10-0) would inch ahead of Marquette (5-4) and, just moments later, the Golden Eagles would steadily creep right back. Every mini-run by Wisconsin birthed a mini-run by Marquette. That was until an extended, 12-4 run by the Badgers yielded a 42-31 Wisconsin lead with just more than 15 minutes remaining.
But following the flow that the game had seemingly declared for itself, Marquette didn’t fade. Instead, they crept back again, shortening the lead to eight; then six; eventually three following a Jamil Wilson three-pointer with little more than two minutes left.
Marquette was trying to win its third consecutive game over the Badgers, an in-state rivalry that has only increased in prominence over the last few years, much aligned with the hiring of head coach Buzz Williams.
The next possession ruined that story.
With the shot clock running down, Wisconsin point guard Traevon Jackson snaked his way to the free throw line off a Frank Kaminsky screen. Kaminsky didn’t move much more than an inch, squaring his body to the hoop at the top of the key. Jackson made a quick bounce pass and the 7-footer splashed a three-pointer that all but sealed the 70-64 victory for the Badgers.
“I tell him all the time, ‘Be ready to catch and shoot,’” Jackson said of Kaminsky. “That’s what he does, that’s what Frank is good at. That’s what we have the most faith in him taking that shot anytime, so it was huge.”
Kaminsky played a key role in Wisconsin extending their lead early in the second half. He sat for the final five-plus minutes of the first half after getting into foul trouble, but converted his first three buckets of the second frame as Wisconsin’s lead grew to 11.
The inches theme was not always clearly visible, but the amount of loose balls — 50/50 balls as the teams tend to label them — that Wisconsin was able to snare proved instrumental in much of Wisconsin’s sustained run in the second half. It was something each coach referenced as key during a tight game.
Ben Brust took off for a dunk — likely just a few inches too far from the hoop — stoned by the front of the rim, but Traevon Jackson went airborne to keep the ball in play, grabbed by Dekker just before he tossed a lob to Kaminsky for the Kohl-Center-rocking alley-oop.
Josh Gasser grabbed a loose ball near Bo Ryan on the Wisconsin sideline, evaded a diving Golden Eagle, slipped through a pair of jumping opponents at the hoop and found Dekker waiting in the opposite corner for his third three-pointer of the game.
“[Loose balls] are huge. Several of those we turned into points,” Ryan said. “And you know what that does to you as a player, what it does to the crowd.”
There is no loose ball statistic in any stat book, but Wisconsin’s 13 offensive rebounds were its most since their opening game of the season against St. John’s.
“I’ve always thought coach Ryan’s teams were tough,” Williams said. “And they were definitely the toughest team today.”
It was a mentality of toughness that Wisconsin wanted to exercise Saturday. Gasser wasn’t able to play in the I-94 rivalry last year, redshirting the season after tearing his ACL. Nonetheless, Gasser remembered how Marquette was more physical in the 2012 game, out-rebounding Wisconsin, if even by the slimmest of margins, 36-33.
Gasser wasn’t going to have the Badgers beat on toughness this time around.
So when Ryan saw his team scrap for the six-point win, he was pretty blunt about the source.
“You know — Josh Gasser,” Ryan said, calling it the shortest answer in his history of answering questions. “He’s a leader.”
“We’ve got some other guys out there that have a lot of grit, but I think you have to start somewhere,” Ryan continued. “And that’s where it starts.”
On the opposite side of the ball, the offensive performance started with Jackson and Dekker.
Jackson’s statline was nearly flawless, scoring 12 points and chipping in five rebounds and seven assists, not committing a turnover in his 26 minutes. He silently controlled the game from the lead guard spot, but his most effective play of the day was all vocal.
“Trae, with 11 minutes left in the first half, came up to me and said, ‘How many shots have you taken today,’ and I said ‘One,’” Dekker said. “He said ‘You’re too good for that, you know. You’ve got to be more aggressive and go out and assert yourself.’”
Dekker was a good listener.
The sophomore missed his first shot post-Jackson’s pep talk, but made his first three-point attempt, tipped in a Nigel Hayes missed layup and cashed his second three all in less than three minutes.
Dekker would go on to shoot 7-for-11 on the day, racking up 20 points and 10 rebounds, his second double-double in the past two weeks. It was a few of his dunks that brought the Kohl Center to its peak in decibels.
The victory brought Wisconsin to 10-0 for the first time in two decades and the first under Ryan as a coach. The head coach isn’t ready to refer to his team’s start as anything impressive, but as the schedule lightens up before the new year, that undefeated record becomes much more of a topic.
“We have a very confident bunch. And Trae and I tried to preach it early this offseason: why can’t we win every game we go out and play,” Dekker said. “We’ve got the talent to do it, and we’ve got the best coach in the business leading us.”