EVANSTON, Ill. – When Ben Brust missed two deep three-point attempts to open the Wisconsin men’s basketball team’s (19-8, 10-4 Big Ten) road bout with Northwestern (13-14, 4-10 Big Ten) Wednesday night, the game had all the early signs of an anxiety-ridden, Big Ten dogfight.
But the dry spell ended in timely fashion and quickly the Badgers found themselves the owners of a 9-0 lead less than five minutes into the game on their way to a 69-41 drubbing of the Wildcats at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Despite playing on the comforts of its own purple-lined floor, Northwestern lost its touch early and found itself in a hole that, by the time it discovered its own offense, it never had time to climb from.
In other words, things had gone just as Bo Ryan and Co. planned.
“I said in the huddle, we got to step on their throats early, not let them hang around because if we do its going to be a dogfight,” senior forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “Their coach does a great job here, runs a very, very good system, they control the pace, they make sure they’re going to get the shots they want.”
Strong perimeter defense from Wisconsin and an absolutely brutal half offensively for Northwestern left the Badgers with a commanding 16-point lead at the halftime break. The Wildcats limped to only 12 points in the opening 20 minutes – the lowest total for a UW opponent this season – and nine of those points came on three-pointers.
Often kicking the ball around the perimeter before tossing up an unfavorable look as the shot clock climbed closer to zero, the home squad finished an ugly 4-of-20 from the field in the first half.
Yet Northwestern emerged from the locker room with its offense revived. After two quick baskets from Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn, NU took advantage of a turnover on the opposite end from Brust when Tre Demps hit a three-pointer from the left corner.
But UW quickly cut the cord on the offensive electricity with five unanswered points to return its lead to a comfortable 17-point margin.
“We knew they were going to flat-hedge, they were coming off screens and things,” Hearn, a senior guard, said. “We knew we would have some fairly open mid-range jumpers and aside from Dave [Sobolewski] hitting a few early in the second half, I don’t think anybody really hit those.”
Hearn proved one of the only sparks for Northwestern in the second half, leading his team with 13 points. But even the Wildcats’ most powerful offensive sparkplug shot just 28.6 percent from the floor, a mark representative of his team’s offensive struggles Wednesday night.
As the three-point balls failed to fall, it was the ability to feed the ball to the big men inside and collect easy scores right around the basket on misses that allowed UW to jump in the driver’s seat early on.
Wisconsin shot just 29.4 percent from three-point territory and instead of forcing the issue, it used its size advantage inside to earn high-percentage looks. Fifth-year senior center-forward Jared Berggren – who did not convert on his one three-point attempt of the night – led the effort with a highly efficient 5-of-9, 12-point performance from the floor.
“We fed Berggren, he got a couple easy ones and Ryan [Evans] got some, I got one, Sam [Dekker] got a couple,” Bruesewitz said. “So when shots aren’t falling we got to hit the glass and make sure we feed the big guys down low. We did a good job of that.”
The Badgers did not exactly burn the nets down early, and Brust missed his first four looks from three-point land – many of them looks the sharpshooter usually buries with regularity.
Brust then regained his rhythm from the perimeter, sinking all three of his shot attempts in the second half, two of them from his preferred spot outside the three-point arc. His renewed energy in the second half left him tied with Berggren for the team-high with 12 points and he also pulled down eight rebounds.
“He’s got a nose for the ball,” UW head coach Bo Ryan said. “That’s something that has made him such a powerful force for us because he can shoot, for the most part … and the fact that he can rebound the way he can, that really helps.”
Though never returning to its painfully unproductive first half pace, the Wildcats’ offense quickly slowed and by the midway point of the second half Wisconsin had a 21-point lead.
Playing without its top scoring threat in Drew Crawford and with two other likely starters unavailable, the Wildcats looked helpless for stretches Wednesday night and simply lacked the offensive firepower or experience to mount a comeback.
NU did not lead for a single minute of play on its home court, never creeping closer than 12 points in the second half.
“Northwestern is a team that, they are capable of giving you problems, but at the same time we feel like this is a game we had to win if we want to be there at the end of the conference race,” Berggren said. “This is one where you just got to take care of business, especially with the injuries and some of the unfortunate things they’ve had happen to them.”