Badgers kick off Big Ten season with a bang
MADISON — No band, no cheerleaders, no problem.
For the better part of two months, the Kohl Center was hardly an intimidating home arena, with the student section quiet and relatively empty, even as the Badgers routinely defeated opponents by 20-plus points.
With thousands from the University already in Pasadena by Tuesday night, Wisconsin electrified the crowd, knocking off border rival Minnesota, 68-60, and kicking off the Big Ten season with a bang in the process.
“It was a big win for us. Definitely,” said Jon Leuer, one of four Minnesota natives on the UW squad. “They’ve kind of had our number over the last couple years, so to get this one it felt good definitely.
“We’re 1-0 in the Big Ten, and we have 17 to go.”
Though most Wisconsin fans may be California dreamin’ this week, the 24th-ranked basketball team showed it deserved some attention as well. True to form, Bo Ryan‘s squad did it through ball security and free throw shooting.
While they were outrebounded and outscored in the paint by wide margins, the Badgers only turned the ball over twice while connecting on 17-of-18 free throws.
Of those two turnovers, one came on a Ryan Evans traveling violation early in the second half, while the other was an uncharacteristic mistake by Taylor just three minutes into the game, which allowed Trevor Mbakwe to grab the steal. For two stretches of about 17 minutes, Wisconsin did not give the ball away.
Afterward, Ryan compared it to the Feb. 28, 2008 game against Michigan State, when Joe Krabbenhoft committed the only turnover in the game in the Badgers’ 57-42 victory.
“Kelby Krabbenhoft is here, and he said two is too many because in the game where we only had one, his son had it,” Ryan said. “So Kelby thought two was too many.
“I thought we did a great job of taking care of the ball. I thought they were pretty active. We got ourselves into some situations where I didn’t know if we were going to be able to attack, retreat, get it out, get it over, and we did.”
After trailing by five points midway through the first half, Wisconsin took control and led by as much at 10 points with 18:19 to go in the game. But Minnesota continued to fight, tying the game at 56 apiece with under six minutes to play.
Minnesota native Jordan Taylor hit a three to put the Badgers back out in front on the next possession, but his biggest play came in the game’s final two minutes, though whether it was the game’s biggest play remains up for debate.
With 1:12 to go, Taylor penetrated the Minnesota defense and put it off the glass and in, while crashing to the floor in the process. His drive sparked the team, and the added free throw for the three-point play all but sealed the Wisconsin victory.
“It was a momentum swing, but I think the biggest play of the game was Jon’s offensive rebound,” Taylor said. “We were up two, and that rebound allows us to get the ball and shoot free throws the rest of the way out.”
Taylor deferred to Leuer’s rebound, which came on the Badgers’ next possession, off a missed three by Taylor.
Leuer grabbed the ball off the glass for just the fourth offensive board of the game for UW, and the two combined to hit six free throws in the final 20 seconds to seal it. Ask the 6-foot-10 forward about his rebound, however, and he’ll defer to Taylor’s three-point play.
“No, I think that and-one was a bigger play,” Leuer said. “It was a time when the game was really close, he drove and I didn’t even see him because both their big guys jumped. I just saw the ball go up, hit off the backboard and it was an and-one. I was very excited at that point.”
As the Badgers secured the ball throughout the contest — their two turnovers was an NCAA low for the season, breaking their own previous mark of three — Taylor led the way with seven assists against just one turnover.
He added a game-high 22 points, while playing 39 minutes against a handful of tough Minnesota guards. The Big Ten is a point guard heavy league, and Taylor has certainly shown that he deserves to be in the discussion among the Big Ten’s best.
“He’s the most impressive point guard we’ve played against this year,” Gophers head coach Tubby Smithsaid of Taylor.
“To play a game with just two turnovers, and for him to go 7:1, that’s pretty good, assist-to-turnover,” Ryan said. “He’s definitely our leader on the court. His and-one I think kind of inspired the other guys. I’m glad he’s on our team.”