Two days after Wisconsin's mammoth victory over previously unbeaten Ohio State, I still think that might have been the best college basketball game I have seen in person. The immovable object (Wisconsin at home) met the irresistible force (the No. 1 Buckeyes' unblemished record, balanced attack) and held its ground.
Being in the Kohl Center is priceless when the entire crowd goes bananas from start to finish. While the fans were as engaged as I have seen in years, it was also nice to be able to rewatch the game from the broadcast perspective later on and piece together how the game was won.
College hoopsters do not have any equipment to put helmet stickers on, but if they did, here are the five people who would get one from me.
Nankivil's defense on Jared Sullinger, while not perfect, was probably as good a job as anyone has done on the 6'9" 280-lb. man-child this season. From the opening tip, Nankivil (6'8", 240) got low in order to hold his ground and moved his feet to get good position. He played so well out of the gate that Sullinger touched the ball in the post only once in the first seven minutes of the game before putting up his first shot (and scoring) with 13 minutes left in the half.
There were a few lapses in the middle of the game that helped Ohio State build a lead, but several of Sullinger's buckets came against defenders other than Nankivil. And when it came time for UW to buckle down and make its run, Nankivil locked down Sullinger again until the final minute. On the flip side, Nankivil has been struggling with his shot in the last two games, but still made Sully and the Bucks pay for getting lazy. The senior from Madison sank the deep foot-on-the-line 2-pointer that gave the Badgers their first lead, 57-55, in over 15 minutes of play, an edge they would not relinquish. Nankivil also sealed Sullinger beautifully on Josh Gasser's drive and reverse layup.
Nope, no discrimination here. Buford's jumper is insane. After scoring 11 first-half points, Buford put on a one-man clinic after halftime when he scored eight straight points in a two-minute stretch to seize control of the game. He finished with 21 points, although he didn't score his final deuce until three minutes remained.
The turning point of the game might have been when Ryan Evans replaced Tim Jarmusz in the Badger lineup at the 15:30 mark in the second half and Buford proceeded to miss his next jumper. Evans was just athletic enough to contain Buford's explosiveness. Coming into the game, you knew Ohio State had an advantage on the wing and Buford knew it too. Jordan Taylor actually started the game on Buford until Aaron Craft came in, but the Buckeye sharpshooter also ran around and shot over Jarmusz, Jon Leuer and Josh Gasser.
* Bo Ryan
When the Wisconsin offense started to stagnate in the first half, Taylor airballed a 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock, followed by a missed free throw and the traveling call against him. Ryan knew his floor leader needed a breather to regroup. It couldn't have come at a better time. With 7:44 left until halftime, Taylor came out during the break where the officials convened to deal with a frozen shot clock. Now I obviously don't know if that situation consciously affected Ryan's lineup decision. But when Taylor returned to the game moments later with 6:18 left, he had gotten around four minutes of actual rest. As we saw in the second half, Taylor was fresh enough to strap the team on his back and get buckets, so I'd say that substitution worked. Sometimes the basketball gods just smile on you and sometimes smart people make their own luck.
The texts back and forth during the second half of the game went something like this:
Friend: "Is Leuer getting owned or are we just ignoring him?"
Me: "Lighty owns Leuer."
Even more than Nankivil, Lighty was the defensive star of this game. His block on the 6'10" Leuer was an amazing showcase of athleticism and anticipation. Lighty also embarrased Nankivil twice with his quick hands that just snatched passes out of the air like handoffs. Though much shorter than Leuer, Lighty was strong enough to bother Leuer in the post and fast enough to move with him as he tried to get position down the stretch. With the all-league big men on both sides neutralized for stretches, Jordan Taylor took over the game because he had to. Leuer was being suffocated.
As Thad Matta pointed out in the post-game, the Buckeyes were willing to let other Badgers besides Leuer beat them and to their credit, Mike Bruesewitz, Gasser and Evans did. Wisconsin just had the best player on the court Saturday and he was unaccounted for. It's not Lighty's fault though.
Not much more can be said that has not already been written about Taylor's performance, so I just wanted to say this: Do not underestimate how important the overtime win on the road against Iowa was last week in preparation for this Ohio State game. Why? Resolve and confidence. This team has both and it trickles down directly from two people, the head coach and his point guard.
Taylor is the reason the Badgers can make noise in March. He makes the team believe it is never out of a game. As much as I loved Trevon Hughes, I don't think Wisconsin would have won either of these past two games last year or the year before. Hughes had big moments too, but also a tendency to sulk during lean time. Taylor is always positive, always confident, always encouraging, always trying to be better. In one of the second half huddles, the Badgers resolved to come back and beat Ohio State. Taylor then went out on the court and showed them how.
Do you realize that Taylor was a 19% 3-point shooter his freshman year? Yeah, he's making 42% these days, thank you. It's been a meteoric rise this season for him. Taylor let his exuberance leak through only once that I remember -- when his fifth trey of the night found net to give UW a 60-55 lead and force an OSU timeout. Other than that, Taylor was all business. Then after the game, in the clutches of thousands of his classmates, he let it all out.