Badgers bounce back from heartbreaking loss by dispatching Illini in game dominated by fouls
MADISON, Wis. - The Badgers must wish they could play every game at home.
Five games into a challenging Big Ten schedule, No. 20/21 Wisconsin (13-4, 3-2 Big Ten) has beaten 10 teams at the Kohl Center, including all three of the conference opponents it has faced in Madison. Conversely, the Badgers have won just one true road game this season. They are 0-2 in Big Ten games away from home.
Fresh off a discouraging overtime loss at Michigan State, in which the Badgers uncharacteristically blew a nine-point lead with just 2:37 remaining, Wisconsin handled No. 16 Illinois (13-5, 3-2), 76-66, Saturday in front of 17,230 at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers rebounded from the debacle in East Lansing thanks to senior forward Jon Leuer's inside game, junior guard Jordan Taylor's free throw shooting and senior forward Keaton Nankivil's prowess from beyond the arc.
Wisconsin's "Big Three" combined to account for 62 of the team's 76 points and helped Wisconsin go on a 13-2 run to open the second half.
Leuer scored 26 points on efficient 9-of-16 shooting. Just three of his points came from beyond the arc. Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan went with a bigger starting lineup, with sophomore big man Jared Berggren getting the nod over guards Josh Gasser and Rob Wilson. The Fighting Illini didn't have enough size to defend Leuer, Nankivil and Berggren simultaneously, and all three saw open looks as a result.
After the Spartans limited Leuer to 3-of-9 shooting Tuesday night, the senior came out aggressively and dominated inside, pulling down nine rebounds.
"He took advantage of his opportunities," Ryan said. "Not every shot is exactly what I want, but I guess we'll take what he gave us today. He did a good job. He didn't force much, he guarded well."
"I didn't feel I had a good performance against Michigan State," Leuer said. "I felt like against Michigan State I let my teammates down by not being aggressive and making good plays and good reads."
Taylor found his way to the free throw line 18 times, sinking 16. Despite shooting just 3-of-10 from the floor, the Badgers' point guard finished with 22 points, three rebounds and four assists. Most importantly, he committed just one turnover.
Nankivil scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half, igniting the Badgers with three 3-pointers in the final 20 minutes. He also drove the lane for an emphatic dunk attempt that spun out of the basket with 4:27 remaining, the second time that has happened to him this season.
"I kind of felt bad for him," Taylor said. "That's the second time it happened to him this year. I've never heard of getting yelled at for dunking the ball too hard. He knows he's got to put it through."
Although Illinois point guard Demetri McCamey finished with 23 points, the Badgers limited him to just four in the first half. MCamey shot 21 free throws, making 17, but went just 3-for-13 from the field.
"I didn't think we played real well," Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. "Leuer definitely was the guy that was special tonight. They went with the big lineup and it allowed him maybe to go inside a little bit. Every time they needed a basket, they were able to go to him."
Neither coach was particularly happy with the officiating, which is no surprise considering 54 fouls were called and 77 free throws attempted. All but 15 of the fouls were whistled in the second half. To say it was difficult for either team to establish any offensive rhythm is an understatement, according to Ryan.
"I think if that was a dance, they'd have called it off," Ryan said. "There was absolutely no rhythm. I told the official I really wouldn't want that job. I think he thought I was being funny, but I was being honest. How would you like to have to officiate that? I'm tired."
"I told the officials it was a tough game to officiate," Weber agreed. "I guess they just felt they didn't want to get it out of hand, so they had to keep calling fouls, and once you call a couple, you've got to keep calling them."
Two players on each team fouled out, while three more Illini finished with four infractions apiece.
While the Badgers' role players didn't provide much in the way of scoring, they still made positive contributions.
Four days after playing 32 minutes and making several critical mistakes in the final minutes against Michigan State, Wilson did not play against the Illini.
Instead, senior guard Tim Jarmusz sparked the Badgers with a 3 just before halftime to give Wisconsin a two-point lead at the break. He finished with five points and five rebounds.
"Tim's a good shooter and they know that and they're not going to let him get free a lot," Taylor said. "Any time you go into the break with a lead, that's a big momentum builder. It was a big shot."
Sophomore Mike Bruesewitz provided energy off the bench, scoring five points of his own and collecting four boards.
The Badgers have emerged from a difficult stretch of conference play a respectable 3-2. While fans will wonder what might have been had the Badgers avoided a collapse at the Breslin Center, every team in the Big Ten except for Ohio State has already lost at least one game, and the Buckeyes have yet to play any of the top five teams in the conference.
The bet here is the champion of this conference will have at least a few losses.