For the first time in this young season, the Wisconsin Badgers basketball team struggled to get much going and into a rhythm on the offensive end.
Greg Gard had told his players there’d be days like this. But he was just as curious as anyone to see if the Badgers could overcome one of those days where scoring doesn’t come easy.
Ethan Happ, Nate Reuvers and company offered a huge answer to that question during a 62-46 win over Stanford in the Battle 4 Atlantis quarterfinals.
Happ finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds while holding the Cardinal’s best player in check. Reuvers tied a single-game program record with nine blocks and No. 25 UW (4-0) pulled away late to book a date with Oklahoma in the semi-finals at 12:30 pm (CT) on Thanksgiving Thursday.
“That’s something we’ve been stressing since way back in the summer,” Happ said. “We need to have an identity to be a great defensive team. Coach says that all the time to us. Some nights it’s not going to fall and we have to hang our hat on our defense, and it’s promising we were able to do that today.”
The Badgers, who also got 16 points from D’Mitrik Trice and 14 from Brad Davison, outscored the Cardinal 18-4 over the final 6:02 of the game. Wisconsin won despite shooting 42.6 percent from the field and not making a three pointer until the final minute of the game.
Why? Because Stanford (2-2) had an even worse shooting day.
Stanford shot 27.1 percent from the field. That is the lowest mark by one of UW’s major conference opponents since the Badgers held Virginia to 23.4 percent shooting on December 4, 2013. The Cardinal shot 2-18 (11.1%) from three point range and finished with a measly 0.67 points per possession.
“Hopefully, it’s a sign of more things to come as they continue to grow and develop an identity on the defensive end,” UW head coach Greg Gard said. “We’ve always talked about what we have to continue to rely upon when the ball doesn’t go in at the rate that we’d like to have it go in.”
Trice drew three charges and Khalil Iverson matched a career high 12 rebounds.
Reuvers, meanwhile, was an eraser around the rim. The sophomore swatted away four shots in the first half and five more in the second half to match the program record set by Brad Sellers against Toledo on November 29, 1982. The Badgers outscored the Cardinal by 24 points in the 26 minutes Reuvers was in the game.
“Before the game, Coach was talking about if a guy has a mistake on defense we’ve got to cover for each other,” Reuvers said. “So when they were driving down the lane I was just coming over and helping my guy out.”
Happ now has a triple-double and three double-doubles in the first four games of his senior season. But the center’s work on the defensive end was what mattered the most against Stanford.
The Cardinal went with a smaller starting lineup than usual, which led Gard to put Happ on sophomore standout KZ Okpala. Stanford has to believe the 6-foot-9 forward would be able to use his quickness to get to the rim against Happ, but Happ didn’t give Okpala anything easy.
Okpala missed 10 of his 12 attempts from the field and finished with 11 points, less than half of his 22.7 per game average coming into the game. Happ eventually fouled out late in the game, but UW had things under control at that point.
“Coach has great belief in my feet and being able to move,” Happ said. “So he was comfortable with me on him and I wanted to prove that he’s right, that I do have good feet and I’m able to stay in front of those quicker guys.”
Throw in Cormac Ryan (1 of 9) and Daejon Davis (3 of 13), and Stanford’s top three scorers were a combined 6 of 34 from the field.
The Cardinal managed only 26 points in the paint – 14 fewer than UW – and had a combined 11 shots blocked by Happ and Reuvers.
“They do a nice job of packing it in,” Stanford Head Coach Jerod Haase said. “They did a nice job of being physical on our drives. When we did get to the paint, I would say there were a variety of times we shot challenged shots when maybe we didn’t have to.”
As poorly as the Cardinal shot, Stanford was within 44-42 after Okpala made a 3-pointer to complete a 10-2 run with 6:51 left in the game.
The Cardinal has a chance to tie the game on their next possession, but Bryce Wills missed a pair of free throws. Stanford was 7 of 14 from the free throw line in the second half.
A three-point play by Davison started a 9-0 run that gave the Badgers a 53-42 lead with 4:11 left. That was more than enough cushion for UW, which held Stanford without a field goal over its final 11 possessions of the game.
“I think last year there would have been some guys, and collectively as a group, where we might not of handled it as well as we did this year,” Happ said of the way UW responded in the second half after nearly wanting a double digit lead. “That’s just another year of experience and belief that we can get stops and work on getting buckets eventually.”