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Ethan Happ vs. Coppin State

Wisconsin's Ethan Happ goes up against Coppin State's Cedric Council and Nigel Marshall, right, during the first half of the Badgers' win over the Eagles in the season opener on Tuesday night at the Kohl Center in Madison. 

It was bound to happen eventually, and finally did on Tuesday night at the Kohl Center.

Fifth-year senior center Ethan Happ, now in his fourth season of filling up box scores for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program, posted his first career triple-double while leading the Badgers to an 85-63 victory over Coppin State in the 2018-19 season opener.

Happ, who flirted with turning pro in the offseason before deciding to return to UW, finished with 10 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists to register the second recorded triple-double in program history. Josh Gasser had the other, a 10-point, 12-rebound, 10-assists performance vs. Northwestern on January 23, 2011.

“Just happy for him,” UW coach Greg Gard said. “He really has worked at his game the five years he’s been here. I’m proud of him.”

Making the performance even more special was how Happ finished it off: by making a pair of free throws with 6 minutes, 33 seconds remaining, before heading to the bench to a standing ovation from the crowd.

The line has been a frustrating place for Happ the past two seasons – he shot 55.0 percent from the stripe as a junior and 50.0 percent as a sophomore – but he’s worked hard to improve from that area and made all four of his attempts against the Eagles.

When word circulated on the UW bench that Happ was closing in on a triple-double, he told teammates that he didn’t want to reach the feat by making a layup.

“I wanted it on a jump shot or a free throw,” Happ said. “It was definitely rewarding to get to the line and then knock those ones down.”

Happ’s big night overshadowed some memorable games from his teammates.

Sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice made a triumphant return from a right foot injury that sidelined him most of last season, scoring a career-high 21 points. Junior guard Brevin Pritzl added 16 points for the Badgers (1-0), who won their opener for the 16th time in the past 17 seasons.

Coppin State, which got 15 points from senior forward Lamar Morgan, made a concerted effort to get the ball out of Happ’s hands. Eagles coach Juan Dixon and his staff watched video from UW’s exhibition win over UW-Oshkosh last Friday and saw the Badgers go 4 of 16 from 3-point range.

“We wanted Wisconsin to shoot from the perimeter, and they made shots,” Dixon said. “We watched film, we game-planned and Ethan Happ did what All-Americans do: He made plays, got his teammates the ball and they made shots.”

Happ’s 12 assists – one shy of the single-game program record shared by Wes Matthews and Tracy Webster – led to 32 points for the Badgers. His passes led to eight made 3-pointers, including three each from Trice and Pritzl.

Trice and Pritzl combined for nine of UW’s 12 connections from beyond the arc in all.

“We’ve got a lot of shooters and you could kind of tell that was their game plan, was just take me away,” Happ said. “That worked out well with having them knock down shots early.”

Trice and Pritzl combined to go 8 of 9 from 3-point range to help UW build a 49-27 halftime lead. Happ had eight rebounds and seven assists by the break, and the only suspense the rest of the way was whether or not he’d get the triple-double.

Happ certainly didn’t force the issue. Even after plays were called to get him looks at the basket, he instead fed open teammates rather than take contested shots.

He picked up his 12th assist of the night – one shy of matching the program record – with an inside-out feed to redshirt freshman wing Kobe King for a long jumper.

Two possessions later, he got in the paint and could have shot but instead fed senior forward Khalil Iverson, who was fouled.

“It’s a testament to his unselfishness,” Gard said. “He was in there knowing he needed two points, but I thought he had it confused and thought that he needed another assist the way he was passing the ball around.”

Finally, on the next possession, Happ drew a foul and stepped to the line.

Swish. Swish.

“He’s a great player,” said Dixon, who served on Mark Turgeon’s staff at Maryland when Happ was a redshirt freshman in 2015-16. “I knew he was going to be a special player. He was one of my favorite players in the country back then. We knew we had our hands full.”

Freshman trio to redshirt

Freshman point guard Tai Strickland appeared in the second half, ending any doubt about whether or not he’d redshirt this season.

Meanwhile, UW announced that three other true freshmen − forwards Taylor Currie and Joe Hedstrom, along with walk-on guard Carter Higginbottom − will redshirt this season.

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