MADISON, Wis. Most of the questions surrounding Wisconsin's basketball team before this season focused on guard play. With two underclassmen handling the ball for the first time in big moments, it was determined the Badgers' trio of frontcourt players would be forced to score, rebound and lead in ways they hadn't before.Then, forward Mike Bruesewitz lacerated a leg and forward Ryan Evans couldn't make a free throw to save his life, affecting his confidence on the court. Center Jared Berggren labored and barely played half of each game. And suddenly, the veteran leadership expected from the team's trees had withered.On Thursday night, it returned in full force during Wisconsin's 60-51 escape act against Penn State to open Big Ten play at the Kohl Center. Bruesewitz, Berggren and Evans scored the final 17 points of the game for the Badgers to quell the Nittany Lions' run.Badgers coach Bo Ryan liked what he saw from his three seniors."The aggressiveness, the moxie," Ryan said. We struggled a little bit at guard, making some decisions there. Frontcourt bailed us out. For most years that I've been here, it's been the other way around."The stretch of senior dominance began with a Breusewitz layup to put Wisconsin ahead, 45-38, with 8:36 remaining in the game and continued on a Bruesewitz 3-pointer. When the Badgers went scoreless for 5 minutes, 15 seconds, it was Evans who made a crucial jump shot, boosting the Badgers in front 52-49.Berggren then produced one of the plays of the game to put a cap on the victory. He received the ball inside the free throw line off a pass from guard Ben Brust, spin dribbled and dunked right over the top of Penn State's Sasa Borovnjak. The jam put Wisconsin ahead, 56-51, with 1:06 remaining."Some ridiculousness that happened," Bruesewitz called it.For the game, Berggren, Bruesewitz and Evans combined to score 38 of Wisconsin's 60 points and amassed 20 rebounds.Bruesewitz, who finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, is known as the hustle playmaker for Wisconsin, and his absence was noticeable early in the season. He missed the first two games of the year with his leg injury. He then missed consecutive games against Marquette and UW-Green Bay after sustaining a concussion in practice. But he has been impressive in the three games since returning, averaging 10.7 points during that span."Bruesewitz, I love that kid," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. "He's a beast."Berggren, meanwhile, has developed this season into the team's most efficient scorer. He made 5 of 7 shots from the field to tie Evans with a team-high 13 points. This season, Berggren is shooting 57.1 percent from the field. He's averaging a team-best 13.4 points per game and is third on the team with 6.4 rebounds."I think Berg is one of the best bigs in the country, and it helps when you have that," Bruesewitz said. "It was pretty obvious tonight he was the best player on the floor. If he continues to do that, it'll be a good thing." I said it the other night he needs to play like that. He's like 'The Hulk.' He really is. He just doesn't turn green at times. It's pretty scary."As for Evans, the free throw woes haven't dissipated. He made just 1 of 6 attempts on Thursday and is shooting 37.9 percent at the line this season (25 of 66). But the rest of his game continues to mature. He is third on the team in scoring (11.6 points) and first in rebounds (7.5). Thursday, he finished with a team-best nine boards.The improved play of Wisconsin's three seniors certainly won't guarantee an easy ride in the Big Ten. The Badgers' point guard play from Traevon Jackson and George Marshall remains erratic. Both players committed forgettable turnovers in key moments of the game.Penn State also is one of the worst teams in the conference, particularly given the loss of point guard Tim Frazier, who is out for the year with a ruptured left Achilles' tendon. Yet it still took until the final minute to put away the Nittany Lions (8-5, 0-1 in Big Ten) on a home floor where Wisconsin (10-4, 1-0) has been dominant for years.Maybe it wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing game, but it was a step in the right direction, particularly for the team's three senior frontcourt leaders.
"They've had experience. They know what it's like," Brust said. "Not even just scoring, but overall senior leadership at the end, it's good to have. We'll be using that going forward."
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