This much is obvious just five games into the season.
Wisconsin coach Greg Gard has a team that exudes confidence, embraces defense and has mental toughness up and down the roster.
The unranked Badgers built a 20-point halftime lead over No. 11 Houston, saw the Cougars battle back during an entertaining second half but made several key shots and got one last stop to hold on for a 65-63 victory Tuesday in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational in Las Vegas.
“This is exactly what I expected,” said sophomore guard Johnny Davis, who led all scorers with a college-high 30 points. “I’ve seen the guys, all the hard work they have put in and the talent we have on this team.
“I would say all of this is expected.”
The Badgers (4-1) recorded their most impressive victory of the season by knocking off the Cougars (4-1), who went to the Final Four last season.
UW faces Saint Mary’s in the title game at 4 p.m. Wednesday in a game televised on ESPN. The Gaels (6-0) advanced with a 62-50 victory over Oregon.
Box score: Wisconsin 65, Houston 63
Davis was spectacular from the start and made crucial plays down the stretch.
He hit 4 of 5 three-pointers and 7 of 11 shots overall just in the opening half. Davis’ 18-point outburst helped UW build a 40-20 halftime lead.
Davis finished 4 of 7 on three-pointers, 10 of 18 overall and 6 of 6 from the free-throw line as UW made 12 of its 15 free throws. He added four steals, four rebounds and two blocks.
Davis scored eight of UW’s last 10 points. He scored on a tough drive for a 61-56 lead with 2 minutes 43 seconds left and hit two free throws to give UW a 65-60 lead with 45.2 seconds left.
He missed a jumper with about two seconds left on the shot-clock and 10 seconds left in the game, with UW clinging to a 65-63 lead, but the Cougars failed to get off a last shot.
Guard Jamal Shead grabbed the rebound with 5.5 seconds left and started up the left side of the floor. He penetrated below the free-throw line, on the left wing, but fired a pass underneath to Kyler Edwards (18 points) instead of shooting and time expired.
“I made sure to shoot the ball with little to no time left on the shot-clock so that they wouldn’t have enough time to get the ball up and get a good look,” Davis said.
Junior forward Tyler Wahl scored nine points, all in the second half when UW went 0 for 9 from three-point range 7 for 21 overall.
“He has stepped into that upperclassman mode,” Gard said. “He knows that when we need him, he’s got to be able to step up and help us.”
Brad Davison added nine points, four rebounds and two assists. He hit two free throws with 1:58 left to give UW a 63-58 lead.
Steven Crowl added eight points, one rebound and one steal.
Sophomore forward Ben Carlson, who had two turnovers and a foul in four minutes in the opener against Texas A&M, was solid Tuesday. He contributed four points, two rebounds and two assists in 10 first-half minutes.
His play was key because Crowl and Chris Vogt both picked up two fouls in the opening half.
Houston guards Marcus Sasser (19.8 ppg) and Edwards (14.0 ppg) entered the game combining for 33.8 points and shooting a combined 44.2% from three-point range (23 of 52). Both struggled early before warming. Edwards finished with 18 and Sasser with 11.
Houston raced to a 17-0 lead in its first-round victory over Butler but the Badgers flipped the script on the Cougars.
UW hit 3 of 6 three-pointers and 5 of 8 shots overall in building a 13-0 lead 4:20 into the game. Davis scored eight points, Chucky Hepburn had three and Crowl added two in the run. Houston, meanwhile, missed its first five shots.
The lead reached 24-7 when Crowl buried an open three-pointer with 8:21 left in the half.
Lorne Bowman scored on a tough drive, Davison hit a jumper and then a three-pointer and Davis scored on a dunk off a feed from Carlson to push the lead to 40-20 at the break.
The Badgers finished the half shooting 7 of 15 from three-point range (46.1%) and 16 of 28 overall (57.1%) and with 10 assists and three turnovers.
Houston hit just 2 of 10 three-pointers (20.0%) and 7 of 27 shots overall (25.9%).
The Cougars turned the momentum around in the opening minutes of the second half.
Edwards hit 3 three-pointers to spark a 10-0 run and the Cougars pulled within 40-30 with 16:05 left. UW missed its first six shots, including 4 three-point attempts.
The Cougars, who never led, pulled within three points with 4:44 left, again with 3:38 left and again with 1:35 left before Edwards hit a three-pointer with 37.5 seconds left to cut the deficit to 65-63.
Davis missed the jumper on a clear-out but UW held on for the impressive victory.
“Personally, I’m happy it happened how it did, as long as we got the result,” Gard said. “Because we knew Houston was going to counter back. We knew they’re too good.
“We got challenged in the second half. I think learning and understanding what works really well and when we get away from it or we get off the track, then you have to catch yourself and make plays.
“The communication and growing together, I can talk about it but these guys have to experience it. And they experienced both today, as they did yesterday.
“I think this is all part of this journey of this team growing and maturing in front of us.”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin 65, Houston 63: Johnny Davis helps UW reach Maui title game