Contrary to what was thought to ever be possible, the Wisconsin Badgers were able to deliver a convincing win, as they took down Lehigh by 22 points on Thursday night, 78-56. This was the biggest margin of victory the Badgers have recorded since Nov. 7 against South Dakota in the season opener.
While the final score looked favorable for Greg Gard’s team, the first half certainly did not reflect this sentiment. The first 20 minutes felt just like the rest of the season — blow-for-blow offense and high defensive efficiency in a tight game.
In the first few minutes of the game, the Badger starters — Chucky Hepburn, Max Klesmit, Jordan Davis, Tyler Wahl and Steven Crowl — struggled on both ends of the court. A slow scoring start was fed by Crowl’s dominance in the paint, which proved to be vital for the Badgers in their road win over Iowa on Dec. 11.
Even still, the Mountain Hawks were able to find the bottom of the net much more effectively in the opening minutes of the game, as their 3-point shooting boosted them to an early lead. Also feeding into this were a rather uncharacteristic six Badger turnovers just nine minutes into the game, as well as poor transition defense.
As the bench rotated in — starting with Connor Essegian and Carter Gilmore — the Badgers were finally able to find some offense, as Essegian hit his first 3-pointer of the game and Jordan Davis quickly put up six of his 14 points — a career high.
Also notable in Gard’s first rotation was the fact that Gilmore and Crowl were on the floor at the same time. In previous games, Gilmore has rotated in to give Crowl a rest or relieve him from foul trouble, but the double big man approach Gard employed midway through the opening half of play seemed to be beneficial. The Badgers heavily improved on rebounding — each big man grabbing five — as well as their interior scoring, as Crowl finished with 15 points and Gilmore added five.
Following the media timeout with under eight minutes left, Wahl awoke and went on his own 5-0 run to put the Badgers back in the lead, further developed by a put-back flush from Gilmore. Even still, Lehigh continued to drive inside and score, mostly through their guard play. In attempts to find players willing to defend, Gard also rotated Kamari McGee and Isaac Lindsey in. Nonetheless, a wide open 3-pointer for Lehigh gave the Mountain Hawks a one point advantage going into half, 32-31.
To no surprise, the second half Badgers came to play, as they have many times this season already. An early slam from Crowl inside rejuvenated the Badger offense, as they continued to score the ball while Lehigh continued to match. After the first timeout, the Mountain Hawks took advantage of the momentum and quickly jumped back into a five point lead.
But, Badger fans knew not to worry when Essegian hit his second 3-pointer of the game at the end of the Lehigh run, which he followed up by drawing a charge and hitting another 3-pointer on the ensuing possession — six of his 13 points in the game. Another 3-pointer from Klesmit and a strong bucket inside from Wahl sparked an 11-0 Badger run, which also inspired the defense.
During the game-changing run, the Badgers finally reversed the turnover margin and forced more than they were committing — ending the game having forced 13 turnovers along with six steals. Also contributing to this run was the rebounding, as the Badgers outrebounded Lehigh by 14.
Even more 3-point shooting from Crowl and Klesmit blew the game wide open, and Wisconsin suddenly found themselves up 16 with just under 10 minutes to play. Hepburn also got in on the action with a fancy step-through in the paint and a fadeaway jumper, as the Badgers never looked back after their initial 11-0 run.
As the clock ran down, Greg Gard switched out his starters and gave the deeper bench players a few minutes of game time. His own son, Isaac Gard, saw his second stint of playing time this season along with Ross Candelino, Chris Hodges and Justin Taphorn. The bench mob closed out the game, and Wisconsin emerged a winner at home, 78-56.
Notable improvements can be seen from this game, mostly in the second half. The defensive rebounding was much more efficient, as nine different Badgers recorded at least one rebound. Also much improved was the 3-point shooting. While the shooting has improved overall from last season, the matchup against Iowa was a bump in the road as the Badgers shot just 27% from three. While this was certainly concerning, Wisconsin still pulled out a win in Iowa City, and they significantly improved their 3-point shooting against Lehigh — 52% as a team.
No. 22 Wisconsin will look to continue their strong 9-2 start to the season next against the Tigers of Grambling State, who sit in first place in the SWAC. The game tips off at 8 p.m. on Dec. 23 at the Kohl Center and can be found live on the Big Ten Network and the Badger Sports Network.