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Published September 19, 2015
The stands were throbbing red, filled with anxious Wisconsin fans standing shoulder-to-shoulder pleading for a clutch shot against the toughest opponent to visit the Kohl Center for an opener in decades.
Sam Dekker and Traevon Jackson sent the vocal backers of the 20th-ranked Badgers home with smiles.
Dekker scored 16 points, and Jackson added 13 — including a floater at the foul line with 8 seconds left — to withstand late pressure from No. 11 Florida in a 59-53 victory Tuesday night.
"Trae is one of the most mentally tough guys I've been around," Dekker said. "He got his little rock-step going and got that lefty pull-up."
Wisconsin held on in its first home opener against a Top 25 team since beating No. 4 Kansas 67-62 on Dec. 3, 1968. The Badgers celebrated with an NBA-style pregame introduction with the lights dimmed and smoke machines pumping before Dekker, Jackson and Ben Brust (11 points, nine rebounds) helped finish off the Gators (1-1).
Michael Frazier II led Florida with 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range.
"How many times do you open up with a ranked team though?" coach Bo Ryan asked rhetorically. "Not many teams in the country open up with a ranked team at home."
His team nearly let a 10-point lead in the second half slip away. For an average opponent, that deficit might feel like twice as much against the defensive-minded Badgers.
But the Gators turned up the heat in the backcourt. The lead was slowly whittled down, and a foul shot by Patric Young (eight points, six rebounds) cut it to 56-53 with 41.8 seconds left.
"So I wanted to keep it a one-possession game on the road and I thought if we could've gotten one stop, at least we'd get the ball back, three-point game, to either call a timeout or take a quick shot," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Jackson disrupted that plan. Ryan had faith in his guard taking a late shot, even one who had committed five turnovers.
"I knew if I flicked my wrist it would have a chance to go in," Jackson said.
The 17,000-plus fans in the Kohl Center let out one loud roar after it sailed through the net.
Casey Prather had 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting for Florida but it was Frazier who gave the Badgers the most trouble early.
They didn't have an answer for the sharpshooter in the opening 8 minutes. Frazier was 5 of 8 in the first half, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range, to help the Gators build a 16-4 lead about 7 minutes into the game.
That was a huge boost for Florida, which has started the season with just eight scholarship players due to injuries and off-court issues.
Then, things started swaying Wisconsin's way. Dekker was a big reason why after he shook off early tight defense by Prather to help Wisconsin finish the half on a 25-10 run.
"I never felt we got bogged down offensively that we couldn't get good shots," Donovan said. "I'm not so sure that we finished enough plays."
It was only a matter of time for the multidimensional Dekker. He can beat defenders off the dribble and hit from long range. He's a whirl of energy on the court, his eyes seemingly always wide open when calling for the ball.
Dekker followed his first 3 with another 3 in transition from the wing. Having created some space to maneuver, he went strong in the lane for his next two baskets.
"He's reckless with his body. He has no regard for his body in a lot of ways," Donovan said. "I think his offensive game has really blossomed."
Shots started falling for the rest of the Badgers.
Jackson hit a 3 off a pick to help give Wisconsin a 29-26 halftime lead. Nigel Hayes' putback at the shot clock buzzer with 13:36 left in the game gave Wisconsin a 10-point lead before Florida turned up the pressure down the stretch.
Florida has been without center Damontre Harris, forward Dorian Finney-Smith and point guard Scottie Wilbekin because of suspension or off-court issues.
A few other players are coming back from injuries including Will Yeguete (knee); Eli Carter (leg) and Frazier (mononucleosis).
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP