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Nothing's free, but Badgers are cashing in at the stripe


Mike Lucas
UWBadgers.com Insider
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Varsity Magazine

March 3, 2014


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Maybe it had something to do with Penn State completing a season sweep of Ohio State just three days earlier on the same floor. Maybe it had something to do with the Nittany Lions playing more one-possession games (6) than anyone in the Big Ten, especially after they had won the last three. Maybe it had something to do with last season’s roller coaster ride at the Bryce Jordan Center in which there were 17 lead changes, six ties and Traevon Jackson’s buzzer-beater from 28 feet.

Whatever the reason, Wisconsin’s Ben Brust got what he expected -- a challenge -- Sunday in University Park, Pa., where a crowd of 7,807 watched the Badgers spoil the upset bid by Penn State with a 71-66 win built around timely 3-pointers and clutch free-throw shooting in the second half.

“It’s a tough place to play, it’s an interesting place to play,” Brust said, “and that’s why you’ve got to bring it every time. They play hard. You’ve got to give them credit. They make it tough; they made some plays.”

But the Badgers made more, particularly down the stretch, while fueling their argument for a high seed in the NCAA tournament, securing a top-four finish in the Big Ten for a 13th-consecutive season under Bo Ryan, winning their seventh-straight game and improving their record to 11-2 outside of the Kohl Center -- a school record for most road/neutral victories. That now includes five straight wins in Big Ten road games for the first time in the modern era at Wisconsin.

So what has gone into this winning formula? What has made the difference on the road?

“We’ve got good leadership and we’ve got guys who have been through it before,” said UW assistant coach Gary Close. “We stick to what we do well and we don’t get rattled. It’s a testament to the character and toughness of our players that we’ve found ways to win. Anytime you’re on the road, especially with a team like this (Penn State), it’s good to get the early lead and fortunately we didn’t give it up although we came close a couple of times.”

The Nittany Lions only held the lead twice. They scored the first basket of the game and also led 9-8. Otherwise, they played catch-up against the Badgers, who had answers for their runs. Penn State pulled within one possession nine times in the second half, including twice in the final minute. But they couldn’t get UW to crack at the line.

The Badgers made 14 straight free throws before Josh Gasser’s miss with two seconds left, which snapped a personal string of 16 in a row for Gasser over the last five games.

“We all have a pretty good track record of knocking them down (free throws),” said Gasser, who continues to lead the conference in free throw shooting percentage. In fact, the Badgers have four in the Top 10: No. 1, Gasser (.880); No. 2, Brust (.875); No. 4, Frank Kaminsky (.828) and No. 8, Jackson (.810).

“I don’t really care who gets to the line,” Gasser went on. “I want to take those shots, I’m confident in myself. But I’m also confident in everyone else, too.”

“They’re a good team, especially with passing the ball and executing their offense,” Penn State’s D.J. Newbill said of the Badgers. “It’s a flawless system.”

Freshman Nigel Hayes has experienced some highs and lows from the free throw line. Recently, he has been on a high. Hayes made 4 of 5 at Penn State after going 5-for-5 in wins over Iowa and Indiana. Over the last five games, he has made 16 of his last 20 free throw attempts (.800). “His confidence is getting higher and higher,” Gasser said. “He has been working really hard at it and usually when you work hard, good things happen for you. And it’s happening at the right time of the year.”

Hayes has been most cognizant of his inconsistency shooting free throws. “I’ve been working at it and I’ve got to keep working at it,” Hayes said. “I need to be shooting higher in order for us to go farther (in the postseason) because I draw fouls. But it’s useless if I don’t make the free throws.”

Hayes not only accounted for nine points -- his biggest scoring output of the last four games -- but he had a season-high four assists against the Nittany Lions.

As a team, the Badgers passed the ball crisply to set up open shooters. In the first half, they had 10 assists on 11 baskets. They finished with 15 helpers on 22 made field goals. “They’re a good team, especially with passing the ball and executing their offense,” said Penn State’s D.J. Newbill, who led all scorers with 23 points. “It’s a flawless system.”

Don’t tell that to UW coach Bo Ryan. There are always plenty of flaws to correct; one of which is closing out an opponent. “It’s something that we’re still trying to improve on -- we have to step on their throat when we’ve got them down,” Gasser said. “But a lot of credit goes to Penn State. They’ve got some good playmakers and they made some plays when they needed to.”

Just not enough. The Badgers converted 11 Penn State turnovers into 17 points. Although they gave up 50 points in the paint, they limited the Nittany Lions to just one 3-point field goal (1 of 13). By contrast, the UW went 8 of 24 from beyond the arc; Brust had four triples and Gasser had three. In Big Ten games, Gasser has made 28 of 56 (.500) to also lead the conference in that statistical category.

When Gasser was informed that the Badgers had set a regular season record with their 11 road/neutral wins, he responded, “That’s pretty cool. It’s not like I’m surprised. It’s something we work for. It’s something that we kind of pride ourselves on. Obviously you want to win at home. But going on the road and winning is very difficult, so I guess it’s something that we can be happy about.”

The Badgers have definitely shown their “cool” at the free throw line. They shot 85 percent against Iowa (11-for-13), 92 percent against Indiana (22-for-24) and 79 percent against Penn State (19-for-24).

“It’s a lot more difficult than it looks actually,” Gasser said. “But, at the same time, it’s repetition after repetition. You’ve been doing it your whole life. You do it all through the offseason and in practice. You kind of live for those moments.

“You want that hard work to pay off.”

It has paid dividends on the road. “We practice everywhere like it’s a home game,” Brust said. “We do all the same things to get acclimated with the place where we’re going to play. We treat it like the next game, which is important. I know that we say that a lot, but we’ve done a good job of coming out strong on the road and being assertive and we’ve gotten out to some leads.

“We’re making our free throws, which is big,” continued Brust. “Not only are we making them but we’re making them at the right times -- the ones down the stretch that don’t give them (an opponent) a chance to get another shot off. That’s clutch and big for us. It was a two-point game and Trae (Traevon Jackson) hit two free throws and the next thing you know it’s a two-possession game. We get a stop and Trae hits the next two free throws. We did a good job of hitting them when we had to.”

The Badgers are on pace to have five different players shoot 100 or more free throws.

The last time that happened at Wisconsin was Bo Ryan’s first season.

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