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Badgers skate past Gophers in front of record crowd

January 29, 2011 Comments off

Photo by David Stluka

Photo by David Stluka

MADISON, Wis. — It was far from the most graceful move of the night, but Hilary Knight’s celebration following her first period goal Saturday night said it all.

After finding the back of the net just 47 seconds in, Knight “went for it,” doing her best Alexander Ovechkin impression by jumping into the glass behind the goal, before quickly falling to the ice. Knight’s goal, and enthusiastic celebration, electrified the NCAA record crowd of 10,668 at the Kohl Center, setting the tone for top-ranked Wisconsin’s 3-1 win over No. 4 Minnesota.

“We definitely feed off their energy and we’re fortunate to have them,” Knight said. “I fell and made it an interesting celebration, but it was an incredible feeling. You don’t score in front of 10,000 people that often.”

The impressive crowd easily beat out two previous record crowds from the 2009 season. The previous women’s hockey Kohl Center record of 6,085 was set last January when the Badgers hosted Team USA for an exhibition, and the previous NCAA record was 8,263 set last February when Wisconsin defeated Bemidji State, 6-1, to kick off the Camp Randall Hockey Classic.

Having played for Team USA in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Knight and team captain Meghan Duggan are no strangers to large crowds. But to see the largest crowd in NCAA women’s hockey history in their home arena for a game against their border rivals certainly was a special feeling.

“It’s incredible,” Duggan said. “I just got the goosebumps actually thinking about it.

“It creates a great atmosphere in the building and really gets us going for the game. It helped out a lot tonight, I think.”

After Knight’s goal kicked things off less than a minute into the game, linemate Brianna Decker tallied one of the more impressive goals you’ll see. It just so happened to also be the game-winner.

With the Gophers on a power play, Decker got in front of a shot, took the puck on a breakaway, and put it past Minnesota goaltender Noora Raty for the goal.

On a night when the Badgers were boosted by the sheer number of people in attendance, it was Decker’s shorthanded goal that clinched the victory.

“You start with great momentum because of the atmosphere, and that certainly added to it,” Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson said. “There’s not many games, this being the first one, where they have over 10,000 people watching women’s hockey. We put on a performance for them and came away with a victory.”

Minnesota cut the lead to 2-1 with a shorthanded goal of its own in the second period, when Becky Kortum took the puck away from the Badgers and bounced the puck off the pads of netminder Alex Rigsby and into the net.

Seven minutes later, Carolyne Prevost skated through a pair of defenders and went five hole on Raty to give Wisconsin its two-goal lead back at 3-1.

While that would be the game’s final tally, Minnesota never stopped fighting, giving Wisconsin a battle all the way to the final horn. The Badgers, who maintained their crowd-fueled energy throughout as well, appeared to have sealed it with an empty-netter in the final minutes, but it was negated by an offside call.

The huge crowd erupted as the puck hit the net, and while one of its loudest cheers of the night was for naught, the energy of the 10,668 in attendance helped Wisconsin maintain its energy throughout a tough, physical battle with Minnesota.

For Wisconsin, the timing of the “Fill The Bowl” event could not have been better, either. After taking two points with a shootout win Friday night, the Badgers led by 13 points in the WCHA standings over the second-place Gophers.

With the win Saturday night, UW increased its lead to 16 points, all but clinching the WCHA regular season title. With six games remaining on the schedule, Wisconsin sits just two points from its third WCHA conference championship and its first since the 2006-07 season.

“These five points this weekend is huge for us, but we’ve got to finish off the rest of the season,” Duggan said. “We can’t slow up, let the foot off the gas pedal. We’ve just got to press it down, keep going, and bring ourselves into the playoffs.”

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Taylor drops 28 on Hoosiers

January 22, 2011 Comments off

MADISON — It was the Jordan show Thursday night at the Kohl Center.

One guard named Jordan got off to a hot start, pushing his team out to an early lead. The other came alive when his team needed him most, and sealed the deal late by dribbling out the game’s final seconds.

Less than five minutes into the game, Jordan Hulls scored 10 straight points for Indiana on four shots from the field, pushing the Hoosiers’ lead from 6-4 to 14-6. Hulls would add just six more points, however, finishing with a team-high 16 on 7-of-12 shooting.

Hulls, who averages 10 points per game, went 2-for-4 from 3-point range, which fell in line with his season average of 51.7 percent from long distance.

“You let your best players play,” IU head coach Tom Crean said of Hulls’ shooting. “Jordan took shots, he was very aggressive and I think there’s some growth with him on that part. I don’t think it’s anything special that we’re doing. We’ve been saying he needs to shoot the ball more since last year.”

Jordan Taylor, on the other hand, was just getting started after Hulls had completed his 10-point streak. With just four points on two layups to that point, Taylor exploded for a career-high 28 points while shooting 9-of-15 from the floor and a perfect 7-for-7 at the free throw line.

Taylor added his own stretch of eight straight points for the Badgers, which cut the Hoosiers’ lead to 19-18, midway through the first half. The junior guard also finished the first half with five straight to make it 34-30 at the break.

In the second half, Taylor really took control of the game, scoring nine of Wisconsin’s 11 points over a five-minute stretch that determined the outcome of the game. During that same time, the Badgers’ went from down 48-47 to a 58-52 lead.

“Jordan really progressed over the past three years,” said Wquinton Smith, who has guarded Taylor in practice over the same span. “He’s getting more confident with his shot and it’s more hard to guard him in practice. I get a little frustrated sometimes.

“That’s what he’s been showing against all the Big Ten guards. He’s holding his own, and to me is the best guard in the Big Ten.”

Smith, who was impressive in his own right with two points, two assists and a steal in 12 minutes of play, was far from the only one impressed by Taylor on the night.

Crean, a coach that is very familiar with Bo Ryan‘s program dating back to his time at Marquette, alluded to Taylor being comparable to former UW guard Devin Harris. As for his rank among current players, Crean said he thought Taylor was up their among the nation’s elite.

“I think Jordan Taylor’s not only one of the premier guards in the league — that’s obvious — I think he’s one of the premier guards in the country,” Crean said. “And it’s not just because he played great tonight. He is an outstanding player.

“He’s got all three facets when it comes to scoring — he can get to the rim with anybody, he’s got a great shot fake… he’s got the mid-range game, and he’s certainly got the 3-point game.”

Modest to the point of continually downplaying any personal accomplishments, Taylor credited his teammates Thursday any time he was asked about something he did.

Along with that modesty, however, Taylor has an unmistakable confidence about him that allows him to succeed. With his 28-point performance, Taylor took back the Big Ten scoring lead in conference games. He’s averaging 22 points per contest, one better than Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson at 21 points per game.

“Jordan, as people are finding out, is a pretty good player,” Ryan said. “He’s been very instrumental in putting us in the position that we’re in right now. And we’re definitely going to need him to continue to play like that, that’s for sure.”

Rose Bowl loss in photos

January 1, 2011 Comments off

Rose Bowl loss an emotional one

January 1, 2011 Comments off

PASADENA — Asked how tough a two-point loss in the Rose Bowl was to deal with, J.J. Watt took a moment before answering, trying to collect himself and his thoughts.

“We know how much this means,” Watt began before his emotions got the best of him.

Teary-eyed, Watt attempted to regain his composure and finish his answer.

“To everybody. To everybody involved,” Watt continued, his voice now audibly revealing the fact that he could not stop from crying. Another deep breath, as some sniffles now accompany the tears.

“We work 365 days a year for this,” Watt said, powering through the emotions, tears and sniffles. “And then we come out here and don’t execute, and we…”

Finally, it was all too much for the junior defensive end. Watt sat back, and covered his face, attempting to hide the tears streaming down from his eyes. For seven seconds, everyone in the room sat silent, watching the display of emotion from Watt, and waiting for him to finish his answer.

Watt did not, and could not finish his thought at that time. But he didn’t have to.

If there were any question about how devastating a two-point loss was after working so hard to get to the Rose Bowl for the first time in more than a decade, Watt’s tears made it clear.

The Wisconsin Badgers didn’t come to the Rose Bowl just for the experience, they came to win, and fell short of their goal.

“It’s pretty tough,” left guard John Moffitt said. “It’s not really something you can describe that easy. I mean, I don’t know. It’s tough.”

Moffitt, having played his final game in a Wisconsin uniform, summed the loss up pretty well, by not summing it up. How can you put into words the disappointment that comes from such a heartbreaking loss on such a big stage?

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Despite TCU’s status as the three-point favorites, the Badgers were billed as big, bad BCS team ready to end the Horned Frogs’ run.

Cinderella stories, by definition, are supposed to end when the clock strikes midnight, not make the game-winning play on the two-point conversion well into the early morning hours.

But therein lies the problem, TCU is no Cinderella.

“Give all the credit in the world to TCU, that is not just lip service,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said in his opening statement. “That is a very good football team. They’re undefeated for a reason.”

Even so, that hardly takes the sting out of the loss for Wisconsin. They put together one of the best seasons in program history, but came up short when it mattered most.

They’ll always own a share of the 2010 Big Ten title, but the 2011 Rose Bowl belonged to the TCU Horned Frogs.

But through the disappointment and frustration, the tears and the anger, the Badgers remain focused, and focused on the same thing that got them to the Rose Bowl in the first place. Wisconsin is prepared to take this loss, evaluate it, learn from it, and get better heading into next season because of it.

Even Watt, who had broken down just moments earlier, was not going to sit and sulk.

“The Wisconsin Badgers will be back to the Rose Bowl,” Watt said definitively. “I haven’t made my decision, but if I’m back [or] if I go, the Wisconsin Badgers will be back to the Rose Bowl. I don’t know if it will be next year, but Coach Bielema is an outstanding football coach, the Wisconsin football program does things the right way, and Coach Alvarez leads the athletic department the right way.

“No doubt about it, the Badgers will be back. They’ll be back better than ever, and when they come back, they’ll win.”

Missed opportunities costly in Rose Bowl

January 1, 2011 Comments off

PASADENA — Many times, in talking about what his team did to get to a share of the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl bid, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema went back to their Oct. 2 loss at Michigan State.

As he saw it, Bielema’s team managed an 11-1 record with big wins over then No. 1 Ohio State and on the road at Iowa because of what they learned from the Badgers’ loss to the Spartans. Had it not been for that game, they wouldn’t be where they are today.

Ironically enough, nearly three months later, the issues that cost Wisconsin in its only regular season loss were much the same problems they had in the Rose Bowl against TCU. The Badgers couldn’t get off the field on third down and left plenty of points on the board through missed opportunities in the close loss.

“I don’t think anybody can beat us but ourselves,” said left guard John Moffitt. “I think we beat ourselves today. We didn’t do what we needed to do.”

From the beginning — literally as Montee Ball ripped off a 40-yard run on the first play from scrimmage — the TCU defense struggled to stop the potent Wisconsin offense. It was the Badgers themselves that did most of the work in keeping points off the scoreboard.

Unfortunately for the Big Ten champions, they followed Ball’s big run — which brought them form their own 32-yard line to the TCU 28 — with a false start penalty on Nick Toon. When the drive came to an end, the Badgers put three points on the board on a 30-yard Philip Welch field goal, which came on 4th-and-8 at the 13-yard line.

On the previous play, Toon added a second mistake, dropping a pass over the middle. Had he not been called for the false start penalty, however, the Badgers would have been in a 1st-and-Goal situation on that series, rather than 1st-and-10 at the 15.

“What got us here was clean execution and clean disciplined football,” quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “We didn’t do that today all around, myself included.”

Tolzien, normally as efficient a quarterback as you’ll find, went just 12-of-21 for the game, passing for 159 yards while getting sacked twice.

On their first drive of the game, Wisconsin left a potential touchdown drive out there, but managed to salvage it with a field goal. When they opened the second quarter with another long drive, they weren’t so lucky.

After moving the ball down the field from their own 23-yard-line to just outside the red zone, Wisconsin faced 4th-and-3 at the TCU 22-yard line. Trailing 14-10, Bielema sent Welch out once again for the 39-yard attempt. He missed it, wide left, for another three points left on the board.

“I just think we missed out on a lot of opportunities that we had,” left tackle Gabe Carimi said. “It’s really just missed opportunities through and through.”

The missed opportunities and sloppy play were not limited to the offense, either.

A pass interference call on Devin Smith played a role in TCU matching Wisconsin’s early field goal with a 10-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that took less than 4 1/2 minutes off the clock.

Later, on what was perhaps the worst pass of the day from TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, free safety Aaron Henry couldn’t come up with what could have been a game-changing interception.

On the first play following Welch’s missed field goal, a pass intended for Jeremy Kerley went through Henry’s hands over the middle. While he broke up the pass effectively, it was a very catchable ball for Henry.

Whereas the Badgers continually missed out on opportunities and left plenty of points on the board, the Horned Frogs always seemed to make the right plays at the right time. In the end, that made a big difference in a game decided by just two points.

“It is definitely unfortunate man, but sometimes that’s just the way the ball bounces,” Henry said of the loss. “They made a few more plays than we did. But this team fought hard every step of the way, and hats off to my teammates. But TCU, they did a tremendous job and unfortunately, they just made a few more plays than we did.”