Freshmen help Wisconsin remain unbeaten
By Jack McCarthy
The Reuters Sports Xchange
EVANSTON, Ill. — There’s nothing precocious about Wisconsin freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig.
Credit talent plus a big lift from veteran teammates that helped the first-year players contribute to a unbeaten Badgers team that claimed their 14th straight victory on Thursday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena — a 76-49 decision over Northwestern in a Big Ten opener for both teams.
:The contributions we’re getting from Hayes and Koeing are really pretty surprising,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “It’s still tough as freshmen. ... If it hadn’t been for our upperclassmen helping them, those two guys wouldn’t be playing the way they’ve been playing.”
The 6-foot 7 Hayes collected a career-high 19 points — his third straight game in double figures — and two steals. Koenig scored four points in 21 minutes in his 12th game of the season.
“One of the biggest reasons Nigel has been able to do that, besides his frame, is that he’s intelligent,” Ryan said. “He picks up things very quickly and he’s so perceptive on the court to things that are going on around him.”
The No. 4 Badgers (14-0, 1-0) are off to their best start in the modern era (since 1946) and stand one win from matching their longest unbeaten opening run in a century. Wisconsin‘s 1913-14 team started 15-0.
Center Alex Olah scored a career-high 23 points and guard Drew Crawford added 10 as Northwestern (7-7, 0-1) dropped its second straight game.
Forward Sam Dekker had 15 points and guard Traevon Jackson added 10 for the Badgers, whose 27-point winning margin was their second largest of the season.
“This has been an amazing group to this point,” Ryan said. “They’ve found ways in some games to turn the tide, to stem a run, to manage to recover. They’ve been resilient, they’ve responded to hard teaching points, criticism and compliments.”
Wisconsin led 40-12 at halftime, the fifth time this season the Badgers had 40-plus points at the break. The Badgers extended their lead past 30 points as Hayes’ jumper made it 51-20 with 14:14 to play.
That proved to be Wisconsin‘s high-water mark. Northwestern went on a 12-3 run that briefly cut the margin to 54-32, including back-to-back 3-pointers from guard JerShon Cobb and Crawford.
But dunks by Dekker and Hayes and a layup by guard Ben Brust pushed the Badgers‘ lead to 62-34 with 7:37 showing. The Wildcats never got closer than 25 points the rest of the way.
“It certainly was a tough night for us,” Wildcats coach Chris Collins said. “To start the game we were doing what we wanted to do: We wanted to keep the possessions down, we wanted to play a lower possession game and not run up and down the floor with them. What hurt us was we couldn’t score and our defense — as time wore on our defense continued to kind of disintegrate.”
Northwestern’s losing margin was its biggest of the season and its 49 points were the fewest since scoring 48 at North Carolina State on Dec. 4.
The Badgers shook off early misses and erased an early 5-4 deficit with a 8-0 run to take a 12-5 advantage. The lead reached 18-7 on Jackson’s fast-break layup. Koenig’s two free throws pushed the margin to 33-12.
Northwestern managed just two field goals in nearly nine minutes and Wisconsin surged to a 36-12 lead.
Hayes had 13 first-half points as the Badgers claimed a 40-14 advantage at the break.
Olah’s effort was a considerable turnaround from last Friday’s scoreless effort in a 57-56 loss to DePaul.
“The team just found me, they did a really good job of finding me under the basket,” he said. “Against DePaul, I didn’t do a very good job and I had to step up.”
A large contingent of Badgers fans, ignoring the aftereffects of 12-plus inches of snow that hit Evanston since Wednesday, made Welsh-Ryan Arena feel more like home for the visitors.
The Badgers lead the overall series 112-61. The teams are 39-39 in games played in Evanston.
BADGER BITS: The Wildcats travel to play 2012-13 national runner-up Michigan on Sunday and No. 22 Iowa next Thursday. ... Wisconsin plays its first conference home game on Sunday against Iowa. ... Northwestern G Dave Sobolewski was reunited with former high school teammate Frank Kaminsky, a junior F for Wisconsin. The pair played together at Benet Academy in suburban Chicago. ... The Wildcats were allowing just 32.9 percent shooting from the field and 21.1 percent from 3-point range combined by their past four opponents. ... The Badgers hold the top spot in ESPN‘s RPI ratings. They were 13-0 against teams with a combined 100-47 record entering Thursday. ... All five Wisconsin starters led the team in scoring in at least one game this season, and all began the night shooting 36 percent or better from beyond the 3-point arc. ... Badgers F Nigel Hayes was selected the Big Ten freshman of the week after collecting 10 points, three blocks and four rebounds on Saturday against Prairie View A&M.