MADISON – Wisconsin coach Greg Gard got a rare breather at the Kohl Center on Friday night.
UW got off to a strong start attacking the court, sputtering late in the first half by relying on three-pointers too often, but then took control early in the second half en route to building an 18-point lead and closed nonconference game with a 76-66 victory over West Michigan.
Consider the 10-point victory in front of a crowd of 15,138 a belated Christmas gift to a coach whose team had played in seven consecutive games decided by five points or less until a 22-point victory over Lehigh on December 15.
“It’s good for them,” Gard said of the starters, who were out for the last 2 minutes, 39 seconds after Steven Crowl hit a 3-pointer to give UW a 74-56 lead. “But it’s also good for the guys who are there at the end. To get 2½ minutes for Markus (Ilver) and a little extra time for Kamari (McGee)… more than 2½ minutes.”
Friday’s victory allowed the 15e-ranked Badgers (10-2, 2-0 Big Ten) to extend their winning streak to five games and tie their 12-game record from last season.
UW resumes Big Ten play Tuesday at 8 p.m. against visiting Minnesota (6-6, 0-2).
Crowl, averaging 12.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists in the previous five games, decimated Western Michigan (4-9).
The junior scored 10 points in the opening 4:26 of the second half to help UW turn a two-point lead into a 14-point lead. He finished with 25 points in college, including 20 in the second half; eight rebounds; and two assists. Crowl hit 3 of 5 3-pointers, 9 of 13 total shots, and 4 of 5 free throws.
“He’s done plays,” Gard said. “He plays more physically. More confident.”
Chucky Hepburn added 11 points, five rebounds, five assists and only one turnover. He helped UW finish with 16 assists on 28 baskets and just four turnovers, including none in the second half.
Tyler Wahl added 10 points, five rebounds and two assists. Jordan Davis added nine points, two rebounds and two assists. Connor Essegian and Max Klesmit added eight and seven points respectively for UW.
Tray Maddox Jr. scored 16 points and Lamar Norman Jr. added 12 for Western Michigan, which entered only 32.9% of three-point distance in the night shots, but scored 41.4% (12 of 29) against UW.
The Badgers pulled away from a 29–27 lead at halftime by hitting 8 of 13 three-pointers (61.5%) and 18 of 29 total shots (62.1%) after halftime.
Do they tinker? The Badgers batted the ball in to open the second half.
They attacked the paint to start the game, scoring six of their first seven baskets at the rim to build a 14-3 lead.
UW curiously got away from throwing the ball in to either Crowl or Wahl, settling for three-pointers off-rhythm and saw Western Michigan pull inside 29-27 at halftime.
“That was the message before Coach Gard came into the dressing room,” said Hepburn. “We talked to ourselves and we knew we had to get more into the picture.
“We started this game really well. But we didn’t touch the post and that killed us. We’re a very hard team to beat when we touch the post because Steve is going to find us or he’s going to score himself.
“We just have to play more through the post and accelerate. We can’t give up.”
UW opened the second half by trying to put Crowl on one side and then Wahl on the other. Both options were considered, but Crowl eventually hit a 3-pointer as the shot clock ran down to start a 16-4 run that allowed UW to push the lead to 45-31.
Six of UW’s seven baskets in that run came in the paint.
“We started 5 out of 7 in the paint and then we only went there three more times in the last 12 minutes of the first half,” said Gard. “We are going from a bigger lead to a tighter game at half time.
“In the second half we did everything we could to play consistently through the paint.”
The result was a double-digit win on a night when no starter played more than 31:24. Now UW can begin preparations for the resumption of Big Ten play.
“I’ve been coming here for 19 years,” said Western Michigan freshman head coach Dwayne Stephens, a longtime Michigan State assistant. “The Badgers have another team that can compete at a high level in the Big Ten.
“They don’t beat themselves. They play under control. They play the right way. Today was no different.”
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