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Ethan Happ - UW vs. Grambling

Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ is defended by Grambling State center Travon Bunch in the first half of the Badgers' victory over the Tigers on Saturday at the Kohl Center in Madison. 

University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Greg Gard spoke earlier this week about the haze he saw some of his players trying to work through while wrapping up the first semester with exams.

“We call it the finals fog,” Gard said Thursday. “The fog was coming in, but I think we’re working our way out of it now.”

There were some clouds to navigate Saturday morning at the Kohl Center, and some of that may have been leftover vapor from wrapping up work in the classroom.

Whatever the cause, senior center Ethan Happ was there as a beacon to help guide the No. 16 Badgers to an 84-53 win over Grambling State.

Happ finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 24 minutes of action and provided a spark during a 40-9 run that stretched over both halves and helped UW (10-2) turn the game into a blowout.

“At the end of the day, they know where their bread is buttered with Ethan Happ,” Grambling State coach Donte’ Jackson said. “The ball is going inside and he’s making all the plays.”

He wasn’t alone, which was another positive development for the Badgers as they near the end of the non-conference portion of their schedule.

D’Mitrik Trice added 14 points for the Badgers, while Kobe King and Nate Reuvers added 10 apiece.

Jackson, a Milwaukee native, caught up with family and friends in the Kohl Center concourse after the game. During a break, he acknowledged the difficulty in defending a UW team that has a legitimate star (Happ), a consistent secondary scorer (Trice) and multiple capable weapons around them.

Aleem Ford (nine points) made three 3-pointers vs. the Tigers, while King had two en route to his second consecutive double-digit scoring performance. Reuvers, meanwhile, went 4 of 5 from inside the arc.

“It becomes a snowball effect and it’s one shot after the next shot after the next shot,” Jackson said. “Then you turn around you’re like, ‘We’re down 25? We were just in the game.’ ”

The Tigers (6-7) were led by Milwaukee native Dallas Polk-Hilliard, who finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

A 3-pointer by Lasani Johnson tied the game at 22 with 7:11 remaining until halftime, but UW answered with a 17-3 blitz that included seven points and a pair of assists from Happ.

The Badgers outscored the Tigers 23-4 over the opening 8:07 of the second half – Happ grabbed his 1,000th career rebound during that stretch, becoming the 15th Big Ten player to reach that milestone – and the rout was on.

Gard thought the Badgers did a better job of being physical and forcing tough shots while holding the Tigers to nine points in 27 possessions during a stretch sandwiched around halftime. But he said it was just important that Happ and his teammates were doing a better job of finishing at the other end.

“The ability to put the ball in the basket also fuels your defense and energizes that,” Gard said.

Another thing that pleased Gard was the balance the Badgers showed, particularly when Happ was resting on the bench.

“I think that’s definitely a strength of this group,” Gard said of its balance. “I think the majority of our better teams here over the last 18 years have had that depth.

“I get asked a lot about a third scorer and all of that and I really don’t get caught up in that because the third chair can rotate. You can play musical chairs with that spot and the fourth spot and different nights it’s different people.”

Games that annually fall in this time range – coming off finals and heading into the holidays – are often sloppy because players’ minds are focused on other things. But, for the most part, Gard’s team did a good job of navigating through the fog on Saturday.

“Coach Gard mentioned it before the game, just to stay focused on the task at hand,” Trice said. “But it definitely takes a toll on everybody that has an exam, just the focus has to switch and we have to be able to separate things from off the court to on the court. I don’t think that it hindered our play today, but it was definitely something that was a problem during the week.”

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Jim Polzin covers Wisconsin Badgers men's basketball for the Wisconsin State Journal.