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(4) UW 95, (23) Illini 70: 'Keep it going'
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON – Judging by their demeanor in the postgame press conference you never would have guessed that Bo Ryan and his players had just accomplished something that no other team had since the University of Wisconsin started playing basketball in 1898. The Badgers were less than a half-hour removed from a 95-70 dismantling of No. 23 Illinois (13-3, 2-1) on Wednesday night. It was a victory that left them 16-0 on the season -- a start that is better than anything the 114 teams that came before them in Madison could muster. But there was no celebrating or jumping up and down. For the No. 4 Badgers it was just game number 16 in a season they hope lasts until early April.
“For the players, what they’ve accomplished, they’ve earned it,” Ryan said afterwards. “They get the credit, they put the sweat on the floor. I’m certainly proud of them. But you start thinking about that too much and it can go the other way in a hurry. So I’m proud of the players, I’m proud of the team, I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished to this point. Let’s try to keep it going.”
The players must have been listening to Ryan talk because they echoed his sentiments on their historic start. A start that has seen them beat three ranked teams, win a tournament title on a neutral floor and go on the road in hostile environments and come out victorious.
“It means a lot,” said Sam Dekker, who finished with 17 points on 6 of 8 shooting against the Illini. “You take pride in what you’ve done to this point. You can’t really ignore it as a player because you try to go out and win every game. So far we have but it also means we have a lot of expectations to uphold. We have a lot more work to do. We are nowhere near content with where we are at now.”
Wednesday night’s game was – well – a game but not for very long. The Badgers (16-0, 3-0) went on a 20-0 run midway through the first half to take a 33-10 lead. They held the Illini scoreless for 6:33 and led by 25 at the break. They scored 50 points in the half against a team that had come in allowing teams to score an average of 61 points in an entire game.
The Badgers made it look easy – going 12 of 18 from inside the 3-point line in the first half and getting to the line 17 times. Meanwhile, the Illini were just 7 of 25 inside the arc and shot just four free throws.
“I thought the game was clearly decided during that 20-0 run,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “And the difference in the game, once again, was the 2-point field goal percentage, our inability to convert those and our inability to defend those. At the end of the day, that was the difference.”
Wisconsin got to the foul line 33 times in the game and hit 23 of them. They moved to 100-11 under Ryan when shooting 25 free throws or more. It was evidence of their aggressive nature – especially during the run that blew the game open.
“When we’re aggressive I think we’re at our best,” said Traevon Jackson, who bounced back from tough game against Iowa and finished with 15 points. “I think we get into trouble when we get passive. (When we) wait until the end of the shot clock. But when we’re at our best we’re attacking, everyone is looking to score. Everybody’s looking to make a play whether to drive or kick and that’s what we did during that run.”
The 95 points the Badgers put up were the most they’ve scored in a Big Ten game since the 2001-02 season when they beat Ohio State 94-92 in overtime. The last time they’ve put up more than 90 in regulation of a Big Ten game came back in the 1994-95 season when they took out Northwestern 97-93. And they’ve now won this year when scoring in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and over 100.
The margin of victory was also their largest ever against a Top-25 opponent and Ben Brust (18 points) was one of five players that scored in double figures – the fifth time that’s happened this year.
While the players acknowledged what they accomplished in winning their 16th straight game – the second longest in-season winning streak in school history – they believe there is much in front of them.
“There was a quote we were talking about, a John Wooden quote, of ‘Don’t get caught up in the praise or criticism.’,” said freshman Nigel Hayes, who is now averaging 13 points per game in Big Ten play after putting in 11 on Wednesday. “So that is what we are trying to do right now. Don’t get too high on ourselves. Make sure that we stay focused, because we know that there are bigger goals down the road that we want to reach.”
A stated goal has been a Big Ten Championship. The win over the Illini left only three teams in the conference – Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin – with unblemished records in league play. A league that is as tough as any in the country.
“We’re not content,” Jackson said of their start. “We’re excited for what’s next. We can get so much better. I still think we haven’t played a full game yet to our maximum potential, so we have to go and practice, look at the film and go out against Indiana and try and do that.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin