Thursday was Josh Gasser’s 22nd birthday. As good friends tend to do, his teammates showed him a good time at the Kohl Center.
Four of those teammates scored in double figures for the Badgers as they overcame a sluggish start to top Minnesota 78-70 Thursday night.
Led by 20 points from Ben Brust and 17 from Frank Kaminsky, the Badgers used an 11-1 run midway through the first half to retake the lead from Minnesota with 9:52 remaining, a lead they would never relinquish.
Kaminsky was complemented in the Wisconsin frontcourt by freshman Nigel Hayes and his 15 points. The duo of Wisconsin bigs combined for 32 on the night — their highest point total this conference season — helping avenge their loss in Minneapolis just three weeks ago.
A definitive low point of the season, their third-consecutive loss after starting the year 16-0, Kaminsky and Hayes were intent on making that January Wednesday an even more distant memory.
“Frank and I, we didn’t take too kindly at all to what happened when we played in Minnesota,” Hayes said, detailing how well Minnesota played in the interior three weeks ago. “We wanted to make sure that this game they didn’t establish that presence.”
The Golden Gophers hung 81 points on the Badgers that night, but too much can change in the Big Ten in a span of just three weeks. Wisconsin’s fall from the top five certainly taught them so.
Minnesota tallied 48 points in the paint at The Barn, but in the Kohl Center they collected just 20, a testament to Wisconsin’s interior defense, but also some early foul trouble.
6-foot-10 forward Maurice Walker — who sparked Minnesota’s initial victory with 18 points off the bench — failed to even attempt a shot until less than four minutes remained in the game.
Walker acquired two fouls early in the first half, as well as center Elliot Eliason. So Walker remained on the bench for the final 12:42 of the first half as the Badgers increased their lead, entering halftime up seven, 35-28.
“Mo was not himself because of foul trouble,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “He was very timid because he was scared to foul and that affected his offense.”
Walker finished with just four points while Eliason added two.
The 2013-14 Wisconsin bunch have never been considered Bo Ryan’s best defensive team, and while he still tends to criticize rather than credit them on that end of the floor, there seemed to be improvement from the game three weeks prior. At least Pitino thought so.
“Oh, polar opposites,” Pitino said. “They did a great job adjusting, that is why coach Ryan has won as many games as he has won. He really prepared them in that regard.”
Ryan had other thoughts, rather blunt in regarding his team’s defense, especially on screens.
“Not one thing differently,” Ryan said. “[We] just did it better.”
While 70 points is certainly no season-low for the Wisconsin defense, it came in a game where Minnesota tried at times to force the tempo as well as squeeze any possible points out of any remaining ticks on the scoreboard late in the second half.
In the end, the Badgers’ defense was steadfast enough to keep Minnesota on edge for much of the game offensively as they forced 13 turnovers. Four of them came during a two-and-a-half minute stretch amid the aforementioned run that placed Wisconsin in the lead for good.
Though, in his eyes, Ryan may not have had a perfect defense trotting around the floor Thursday night, he didn’t necessarily need it. Sam Dekker was the fourth Badger scoring double figures with 10 of his own while point guard Traevon Jackson added nine.
Birthday boy Gasser chipped in seven to round out the scoring for UW. Although Andre Hollins’ 22 points were likely more than Gasser would have wished to surrender on his birthday, the majority of those came in the waning minutes as Minnesota simply delayed the celebration.
Add in that Wisconsin went to the free throw line 36 times, making 10 more (30) than their opponent attempted (20), it was always going to be an uphill battle for the Golden Gophers.
“It really came down to, in the end, when you turn the ball over 13 times and you allow them to make 30 points from the free throw line,” Pitino said. “You aren’t going to win on the road.”