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Seniors lead the way as Badgers finish perfect at home

February 28, 2011

MADISON, Wis. — With 35 seconds remaining in Sunday’s game, Bo Ryan called a timeout. But with a 14-point lead, the Wisconsin head coach’s decision had nothing to do with game strategy.

As the UW student section chanted, “We want J.P.,” Ryan called for his three senior reserves, who entered in place of the Badgers’ three senior starters. One by one, Tim Jarmusz, Keaton Nankivil and Jon Leuer received standing ovations from the crowd.

Walking off the court at the Kohl Center for the last time, Leuer hugged Ryan, as the students had switched to “Thank you, seniors.” Taking a seat on the bench, the three seniors got the opportunity to watch Wisconsin’s final offensive possession of its 78-63 victory over Northwestern.

“It hasn’t really set in yet, I don’t think, for me,” Leuer said. “I definitely have a lot of emotions going. It’s just been an unbelievable four years here at the Kohl Center, and I’m definitely going to miss it.”

Just 22 seconds after they had entered, Wisconsin’s other three seniors were given their moment. Like the three starters, Wquinton Smith, Brett Valentyn and J.P. Gavinski walked off the court, one by one, for the last time.

It will not go down as the best game in the careers of the six seniors, but for the last one they’ll play at home, they were happy to come away with the victory. More often than not, that has been the result at the Kohl Center during their four years.

With a home record of 61-6 over four years, the 2011 senior class finished with a winning percentage of better than 91 percent at the Kohl Center. Overall, the Badgers have gone 97-33 over the same stretch, already making Wisconsin’s current seniors the winningest class in school history.

UW finished 16-0 at home this season, marking just the third time in 80 years the Badgers have gone undefeated at home.

“When we’re at the Kohl Center, we don’t plan on losing,” Leuer said. “Ever. This team did that this year, and I think that’s one of our goals.”

But the final score hardly indicates how close Wisconsin was to suffering its first home loss in nearly a year. With 7:14 remaining in the game, a 3-pointer from John Shurna drew Northwestern within three points at 58-55.

Five minutes later, a rare Jordan Taylor turnover allowed the Wildcats to score twice in just 10 seconds to cut the lead from 11 points to seven with 2:22 to go in the game. On the next trip down the court, Nankivil hit a 3-pointer to put the Badgers back up by 10 points and spark an 8-0 Wisconsin run to close out the game.

While the Wisconsin fans may not have shared his confidence, junior point guard Jordan Taylor said afterward that he never believed the outcome was in doubt.

“I just felt like we were always in control, especially the way Jon was playing,” Taylor said.

With the way the first half had gone for the Badgers, the game looked to be an easy UW victory until the Wildcats made their second-half run. While Northwestern shot well throughout, Wisconsin was even better, especially in the game’s first 20 minutes.

UW scored 43 points in the first half matching the second-highest total for the Badgers in a first half during Big Ten play. Wisconsin’s 65.4 shooting percentage marked the team’s best-shooting first half this season and the team’s best-shooting half overall in Big Ten play this season.

Leading by 13 at the break, the Badgers extended it to a 16-point lead over the first three minutes of the second half on six points from Leuer. From there, however, the game’s momentum switched in Northwestern’s favor.

Fueled by their hot shooting from 3-point range, the Wildcats went on a 20-7 run over a nearly 10-minutes stretch. The run was sparked by a 3-pointer from Michael Thompson and capped by Shurna’s big shot that cut the lead to just three points.

For Ryan and the Badgers, the Wildcats’ run was something they expected.

“When you prepare for them, you talk about those kind of runs,” Ryan said. “You really do. I’ve seen them do that to other teams, and the other team gets down, the other team gets a little disjointed. And they’re going to do that at times. They’re going to go through those streaks.”

But with the Kohl Center crowd behind them as they have been so many times over their four years, the Wisconsin seniors — with a little help from Taylor and freshman guard Josh Gasser — held off Northwestern to ensure their perfect mark at home this season.

Even then, after all 16 home games had been won, Ryan made no mention of it to his team.

“It never was in a conversation that we had,” he said. “All I said after the game was we closed out the home portion of the schedule. Now we still have games to play. But I’ve never talked about it.

“They can read, they listen to their classmates. They know what’s going on. But we’ve never talked about a streak.”

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