OMAHA, Neb. (AP)—Cal State Fullerton gave the bullies of the Big Ten all they could handle, and then some.
The undersized Titans battled Wisconsin deep into the second half before the Badgers prevailed 71-56 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Badgers won the game. The Titans won respect.
“They’re smaller,” Wisconsin forward Brian Butch said, “but that didn’t mean a whole lot.”
No, it didn’t.
Not when the Titans had Josh Akognon matching his career high with 31 points. Akognon kept Fullerton in the game with five 3-pointers, four of which came in the second half and kept the Titans in the game just when it looked like Wisconsin was about to pull away.
“Once you get to that point where you put out so much energy, it’s that much harder to get over that hill,” Akognon said. “Tonight was that. We’d get close, and they’d hit a big shot and get their momentum back up. For us, that was just a killer.”
The Badgers shot 42 percent and committed 17 turnovers, but they blocked seven shots and outrebounded the Titans 50-27, including 18-7 on the offensive end.
They move on to play Kansas State in Saturday’s second round of the Midwest Regional.
Butch scored 14 points and Joe Krabbenhoft and Jason Bohannon 13 apiece for the Badgers (29-4), who won for the 24th time in 26 games.
Frank Robinson added 11 points for the Titans (24-9).
“Our guys really thought they could win,” Fullerton coach Bob Burton said. “We’re not the brightest group in the world. So (winning) was kind of on our agenda here. They’re pretty discouraged. I hope they understand it was really a great run.”
Butch said the Badgers weren’t taken aback by the hard-charging Titans.
“This is the NCAA tournament, so you expect everything,” he said. “We knew they were a heck of a team when we got here. They fought us hard and continued to fight hard the entire game.”
The win came as a relief to a Wisconsin team that remembers the disappointments of the past two tournaments. In 2006, the Badgers lost to Arizona by 19 points in the first round. Last year, as a No. 2 seed, they were upset by UNLV in the second round.
The Titans, in the tournament for the first time since 1978, were bidding to pull the biggest tournament upset since No. 14 Northwestern State toppled Iowa 64-63 in 2006.
Fullerton wasn’t intimidated by the nation’s top defensive team. The Titans came in as the nation’s No. 5 scoring team, at 82.7 points, and their 56 points were a season low. Still, they were in the game until late.
The Badgers started wearing down the Titans by the middle of the second half. Michael Flowers’ three-point play and Greg Stiemsma’s baseline jumper pushed Wisconsin’s lead to nine points and brought the Badger faithful to their feet.
Sure enough, Trevon Hughes came up with a steal and Krabbenhoft finished a fast break to give the Badgers their first double-digit lead with 12 minutes left.
On the eve of the tournament, Burton complained that he hated his team’s draw and suggested victory was an impossibility.
His players must not have heard that, because they battled until the Badgers’ brawn took over.
“I thought our guys responded well to a very hard-fought game, especially in the first half,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “They have unlimited range, a couple of their guys, and they’re very scrappy on defense. Bob has done a heck of a job with that group. I can see how they got here.”
Fullerton went at the Badgers right from the start. Akognon made three of his first four shots as the Titans took a 16-10 lead.
When Bohannon hit a 3-pointer to start a 10-0 Wisconsin run and Fullerton missed 13 of its next 17 shots, it looked like the game was over.
And the Titans easily could have been demoralized after Wisconsin’s Marcus Landry stuffed Kenneth Alexander in mid-shot, or when 6-foot-1 Stiemsma effortlessly slapped away an inside shot by 6-6 Andrew Green.
“Every time you tried to go to the hole, there was a 6-foot-10 dude waiting for you that you had to shoot over,” Scott Cutley said. “Their big guys wore us down.”
But Fullerton wouldn’t give an inch most of the night—even though its starters gave up a combined 15 inches to Wisconsin.
The 6-4 Robinson pounded that point home late in the first half when he dunked in the face of the 6-7 Krabbenhoft. Later, Akognon hit a baseline jumper to tie it 28-28 in the final minute of the half. Stiemsma’s putback put Wisconsin on top 30-28.
“Every game has a run. They had a run. We had a run,” Butch said. “That’s one of the reasons we have been so successful is that we have stayed even keel with things when other teams have made runs. We’ve stayed calm and focused.”