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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Zak Showalter's scrappy play can get overshadowed by the star power of No. 14 Wisconsin.
But Showalter might have just as important a role as Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ on a team with designs on another deep NCAA Tournament run, especially if a guard known for hustle and defensive intensity keeps scoring in double digits.
Hayes scored 20 points, Showalter added a season-high 18 and the Badgers used an active start on the defensive end to build an early lead and defeat Rutgers 72-52 on Tuesday night.
Mike Williams scored 18 points for Rutgers, which shot just 31 percent for the game.
"Defensively, any time you can hold a team ... to 31 percent from the floor, that's usually pretty effective," Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said.
The Badgers (12-2) opened with a 16-4 run over the first 12 minutes to take control in both teams' Big Ten opener. They set the tone early with in-your-face defense, forcing numerous runouts on the break.
"We certainly have got to play a lot better. Got off to a bad start, turned the ball over 12 times (in the first half) and we were helping them," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. "They don't need any help."
Wisconsin built a 15-point halftime lead, aided by an active Showalter. He finished with three steals and made an impressive two-handed bounce pass between two defenders on the break to Happ for a layup and Wisconsin's first basket.
Showalter finished 6 of 10 from the field, including 2 of 5 from 3-point range, and finished with double-digit scoring for the third time in four games.
"Opportunities to get my hands on balls led to some quick points on the break in the early game," Showalter said. "Keep doing that and (we) hopefully get some easy buckets."
Gard said he expected a physical game from Rutgers (11-3), which is trying to prove itself in the Big Ten following a respectable start in nonconference play in Pikiell's first season.
It's a style well-suited for Showalter.
"In these type of games, he thrives," Gard said. "He likes the physicality, he likes to mix it up, stick your nose in, get knocked around."
Rutgers: Corey Sanders, who averaged a team-high 28.8 minutes, led the team on the season coming into Tuesday with 50 assists and 23 steals. Rutgers never caught up following its messy start without Sanders. If nothing else, the game will serve as a reality check after an impressive 11-2 record in nonconference play in Pikiell's first year.
Wisconsin: The more talented Badgers played the role of Big Ten favorites perfectly by taking control early. They hit a couple of sloppy patches, but rarely withered defensively and held the Scarlet Knights to 24 percent shooting (6 of 25) in the first half. It was just the confidence-building conference opener that Wisconsin needed before beginning a tough, two-game road stretch against ranked opponents Indiana and Purdue.
SECOND HALF PUSH
Wisconsin needed the big lead after the Scarlet Knights rallied from a 20-point deficit with 14 minutes left.
Rutgers forced turnovers and went on a 3-point shooting spree, hitting five from behind the arc in a 5-minute stretch capped by Nigel Johnson's 3 with 8:19 left to get within 53-44.
The Badgers clamped down defensively from there, holding Rutgers to two field goals over the next 5-plus minutes.
SANDERS' TOUGH NIGHT
Sanders came off the bench for the first time this season and did not enter the game until about halfway through the first half. Pikiell said after the game that Sanders had missed a practice after not getting back to campus in time following holiday travel.
"Christmas travel, it's a tough time of the year. He didn't get back for practice. If you don't get back for practice, you don't start. That's the rule," he said.
Sanders left the court with 5:39 left with an apparent right leg injury, needing the help of two trainers to go back to the locker room. He finished with four points on 1-of-11 shooting.
Rutgers: Plays its first Big Ten home game on New Year's Day, hosting Penn State.
Wisconsin: Travels to No. 16 Indiana on Jan. 3 in an early matchup of conference contenders.
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