Despite relying on some new faces and playing in a strange location, No. 20 Wisconsin continued its mastery in season openers, beating St. John's 86-75 on Friday night before a sellout crowd of 3,523 at the Sanford Pentagon.
The Badgers are 1-0 for the 12th straight season thanks in large part to balanced scoring and solid shooting. Five players scored in double figures — led by 19 from guard Josh Gasser in his return from injury — and hit 11 of 23 attempts from 3-point range.
The two biggest shots from deep came with about 8 minutes left in the game and were separated by 22 seconds. They pushed Wisconsin's lead from four to 10.
"That's kind of our game this year — all five guys on the floor can shoot," Gasser said. "We were really taking advantage of that especially early and especially when the game was getting tight."
The Badgers never trailed, taking control early with an 11-2 spurt and leading by as many as 18 points. St. John?s made a move in the second half by getting aggressive, using its athletic advantage to ramp up the defense pressure after opening the game in a zone defense.
Forward JaKarr Sampson, the freshman of the year in the Big East last season, provided the initial spark with several electric dunks. He finished with 21 points and seven rebounds. D'Angelo Harrison had 27 points on 9-of-19 shooting.
The Red Storm were cold early, making nine field goals in the first half compared to 10 turnovers and 10 fouls. They committed just two turnovers in the second half and finished with a 44-24 edge in points in the paint. But it wasn?t enough as Wisconsin outscored them 33-6 from beyond the arc and made its final 12 attempts from the free throw line to win the first meeting between the programs since the 2002 NCAA tournament.
The Badgers are 4-0 in the series.
"They shoot the ball really well, and it's tough," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "They put you in a pick-your-poison situation. If you stretch out behind the 3-point line they pound you inside."
Wisconsin shot better from 3-point range (11 of 23) than it did from inside the arc (14 of 32).
Returning starting guards Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson finished with 15 and 13 points, respectively. Forward Sam Dekker, a member of the Big Ten all-freshman team last season, had 16 points and seven rebounds.
However, the most significant offensive contributions came from two guys that weren't in the mix last season. Junior reserve Duje Dukan put up 15 points on 4-of-6 shooting and had five rebounds in 21 minutes. He totaled 11 points in his first two seasons.
Gasser, a junior, was 4 of 7 from the field with three 3-pointers and went 8 of 8 from the free throw line for 19 points and he grabbed eight rebounds.
He was a starter in 2011-12 and missed all of last season due to a knee injury.
"Just gusty, tough — that?s Josh," Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. "Thirty-some games last year where he wasn't on the floor where we could have used that, that energy, that moxie. He might not do that every night, but he certainly showed why he works so hard in the offseason and is just so anxious to get back on the court and be himself."
The game was played in Sioux Falls as a favor from Ryan to Sanford Health CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft, whose son Joe played for the Badgers from 2005-09.
The five-sided, $19-million Pentagon opened in September and last month hosted an NBA exhibition game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Milwaukee Bucks. The primary court — called Heritage Court — is an homage to the game, lined with images of great players and coaches and modeled after Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
"Wherever there's a court and hoops you've got to get a win," Dekker said.
"We wanted to do that tonight and it feels good."