Wisconsin brought its offense out of the deep freeze into the desert, and the thaw was remarkable.
Jon Leuer scored 17 of his 22 points in the second half and the Badgers methodically dispatched Belmont 72-58 on Thursday night, the Badgers' fifth consecutive NCAA tournament-opening victory. Jordan Taylor added 21 for fourth-seeded Wisconsin (24-8), 14 in the first half.
"I never stopped believing in the team. There was never any doubts there," said coach Bo Ryan, who has brought Wisconsin to the NCAA tournament each of his 10 seasons there and has won the opener in nine of them. "It's about what THEY can accomplish is the job of a teacher, a coach, a parent. You put young people in positions, you try to give them what you can."
The Badgers play No. 5 seed Kansas State (23-10) in Saturday's third round game of the Southeast Region. K-State beat No. 12 seed Utah State 73-68 in the night's final game in Tucson.
There was much talk of Belmont, a No. 13 seed, being a surprise tournament team, but the Bruins never hit their stride against the Badgers, who made 12 of 22 3-pointers, led by Taylor's 5 of 9.
"I thought we defended in this game about as good as we can defend," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "And I'd like to see how many of those were in the last 6 seconds of the shot clock and how many were contested."
It was an impressive rebirth of the Wisconsin offense after a blowout loss to No. 1 Ohio State, followed by an ugly 36-33 defeat against Penn State in the lowest-scoring game in Big Ten tournament history. Wisconsin was 2 of 21 on 3-pointers in that one.
"We really forgot about the last two games," Taylor insisted. "As soon as they were over we forgot about them."
Badgers reserve Mike Bruesewitz sprained his right knee against Penn State and it was uncertain how much he would be able to play. He made two of three 3-pointers, scored eight points and pulled down a career-high nine rebounds in 29 minutes.
But the major damage came from the Badgers' "big two" of Leuer and Taylor.
"This something we haven't had to face," Belmont's Mike Hedgepeth said, "the ball screens with the five men who can step back and shoot. And, you know, they're like the best free-throw shooting team in the country."
Hedgepeth scored 17 and Kerron Johnson 13 for the Atlantic Sun champion Bruins (30-5), still searching for their first NCAA tournament victory after four tries.
Belmont shot 37 percent overall and made only 6 of 22 3-pointers. Starting guards Ian Clark and Drew Hanlen were a combined 2 of 15 from the field.
"We have really good shooters," Clark said. "We executed our plays, coach called great plays and we ran our stuff, but the shots weren't falling."
In a play that epitomized the outcome, Taylor was stuck at the top of the key with the shot clock expiring and let fly with a 3-pointer that hit the mark with 16:57 remaining. Leuer followed with his second turnaround jumper of the half to put Wisconsin up 41-31.
Byrd substituted his entire lineup, not all that unusual for a team that regularly goes 10 deep.
Jordan Campbell made a pair of 3-pointers that cut it to 43-39 with 13:38 to play. But the Bruins from Nashville, Tenn., never got any closer.
Bruesewitz's 3-pointer started a 13-1 run over the next five minutes that put Wisconsin safely in control at 56-40 on Jared Berggren's 3-pointer with 8:32 to play. Belmont cut it to 12, but a Wisconsin team that made an NCAA record 82.4 percent of its free throws this season, sealed the victory at the line from there.
The game picked up after an excruciating first 8½ minutes that had Wisconsin ahead 8-7.
Down 25-23 after Kerron Johnson's reverse layup for Belmont, the Badgers scored the next nine points, all from long-range on 3s by Leuer, Tim Jarmusz and Taylor, to go up 32-25 with 1:36 left in the half.
Wisconsin, a 37 percent 3-point shooting team for the season, made 7 of 14 in the first half to lead 34-27 at the break. They made 5 of 8 3s in the second half. Six players made at least one.
"Any time you lose you want to play better," Taylor said. "You kind of want to get back on the court. Scoring 33 points is, I mean, it happens I guess, not too often, but obviously it happens. We were just excited to get back on the floor. As you can see, guys were ready to relish this challenge of knocking down shots and we had a number of guys do that today."