Men's basketball

Wisconsin overcomes first-half struggles once again to put away Rutgers

Senior forward Khalil Iverson scored two key baskets to start the first half and played a jack-of-all-trades role in the win over Rutgers.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

For the fourth straight game, the Badgers (2-0 Big Ten, 8-1 overall) entered the second half without a lead.

And yet, after No. 12 Wisconsin’s 69-64 win over Rutgers (0-2, 5-3), just one of those games in question has ended in a loss. Call the Badgers a second-half team if you want, head coach Greg Gard would probably just call them winners.

“We’ve played good teams. I mean, look at the stretch we’ve been through. You’d expect it to be competitive,” Gard said.

Wisconsin’s latest victory came at the mercy of a sneaky-good Rutgers team that defeated Miami on the road and pushed Michigan State to its limit last week.

The Badgers once again struggled early on as they committed six first-half turnovers and crawled into the second half down 26-31.

It could’ve been even worse.

Wisconsin allowed 53.8 percent shooting in the first half, including 16 points in the paint, as Rutgers’ speedy sophomore guard Geo Baker got inside looks with ease.

“First, number one rule is stop the ball,” Gard said. “Regardless of whether that’s transition, or in the half-court, and [in the] second half we were better.”

The only real positive for the Badgers in the first half was Ethan Happ’s production. The senior forward has started slow in many games this year, but posted eight points and three rebounds in the game’s first 20 minutes against a defense that played to his strengths. He finished with 20 points on the night.

“NC State, they came with a hard double,” he said. “And for most of [this] game they just let me play one-on-one with some hard digs, so that’s always something that I enjoy.”

After opening the second-half down five, the Badgers gained control of the game with some much-improved defense. While Rutgers still managed to hang around and never trailed by more than 11, they were ultimately unable to keep up with a Badgers offense that was more responsible and effective with its passing in the last 20 minutes.

The Badgers netted all seven of their assists in the second period and only committed one turnover in the same time frame.

“We have simple things we talk about. It’s easy to talk about it; it’s a little harder to do it and be consistent at it,” Gard said. “I think we did a better job of being stronger with the ball and not putting ourselves in hazardous positions, getting caught on the floor in certain areas.”

On the other side of the ball, senior forward Khalil Iverson was instrumental after beginning the second half with a fast break score following a steal. He finished with four rebounds (tied with three others for team-high), two steals and one block in a defensive Swiss-army-knife performance.

“You’ve heard me talk about how the game has evolved so much that I look out there trying to find matchups, and there’s rarely two bigs together,” Gard said. “It’s the positionless aspect of it. And Khalil helps us become more positionless defensively.”

While the Badgers left the Kohl Center with a win, Rutgers was never fully put away, as it continually made tough shots and out-rebounded the Badgers 30-27.

Sophomore D’Mitrik Trice chipped in with 14 points, including two makes from three, where he’s now shooting 60 percent on the season. Sophomore forward Nate Reuvers and junior guard Brevin Pritzl had 10 and nine respectively, while sophomore guard Brad Davison was held to just four.

Though the Badgers struggled to bury the Scarlet Knights for good, they’re now 8-1, their best start since that famous 2014-'15 season.

This is clearly a talented team, but Gard doesn’t think these games will get any easier.

“It’s the Big Ten,” the head coach said. “It’s gonna be rough, it’s gonna be competitive, it’s probably nationally, you’ve all heard. It’s gonna be one of the best leagues in the country, if not the best.”

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