Nankivil, Leuer lead way in comfortable win as Taylor struggles
MADISON, Wis. - Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis saw that Wisconsin senior forward Keaton Nankivil was entering Sunday's game in a bit of a shooting slump. So DeChellis didn't make defending the 6-8 Madison native a priority for the Nittany Lions.
That turned out to be a mistake.
Nankivil burned Penn State for 22 points on 8-of-9 shooting, including a perfect 5-for-5 from beyond the arc, as Wisconsin (20-6, 10-4 Big Ten) rolled to a cushy 76-66 win over Penn State (14-12, 7-8) at the Kohl Center Sunday.
Nankivil's hot shooting was a constant in the Badgers' victory. He scored 11 points in each half and made all four of the shots he took before halftime. That included three 3s in the first six minutes of the game, which helped Wisconsin build a 17-8 lead.
"We gave him open shots and that's not really what you want to do with him," DeChellis said. "He's a very good perimeter shooter, maybe their best 3-point perimeter shooter. I don't know if he's shot really well lately. We just didn't get out and get into him. They made shots."
After one of those shots, Nankivil appeared to be bothered by his ankle and moving gingerly. He played 15 first-half minutes but retreated to the locker room with a trainer a few minutes before the half ended.
As it turned out, there was nothing to worry about. Nankivil stayed hot through the break and drained two more 3s in the second half, including a jumper with 7:04 to play that gave the Badgers a 15-point lead. Despite receiving treatment that prevented him from participating in the postgame press conference, there is no indication that his ailment is anything serious.
In a routine performance, senior forward Jon Leuer matched Nankivil with 22 points of his own. Leuer was an efficient 8-of-14 from the floor and a perfect 5-for-5 from the free throw line. While Nankivil was busy draining 3s, Leuer was doing the dirty work down low; 11 of his 14 shot attempts were from inside the arc and he contributed to UW's 20-16 edge in points in the paint.
"Jon Leuer is so good around the basket," DeChellis said. "We know he's going to turn over his left shoulder and he's going to shoot his jump right hook, but you can't stop it. He's a very good post player. When both of those guys (Leuer and Nankivil) are scoring the way they are, that's very hard. They're a tough match."
Leuer recorded his fifth double-double of the season by hauling in 10 rebounds, four more than any other player who saw the floor for either team. He again displayed his ability to pass out of the post and finished second on the team with three assists.
The Nittany Lions came in with their own trio of highly regarded senior forwards, but they couldn't come close to matching the 46 combined points and 15 total rebounds produced by Nankivil, Leuer and Tim Jarmusz. David Jackson, Andrew Jones and Jeff Brooks combined to pull down just six rebounds and score 24 points.
"We didn't get any on our front line," DeChellis said. "They didn't rebound. They didn't score. For us, those are three seniors and if they don't bring it, it puts a lot of pressure on some other guys."
It was after the Badgers' surprising 56-52 loss at Penn State last month that Wisconsin's big men made a commitment to becoming more aggressive on the boards. In the loss at State College, Jackson, Jones and Brooks won the rebounding battle over the Badger forwards, 20-14.
A crucial element of Sunday's win was Wisconsin's ability to play well despite a subpar performance from junior point guard Jordan Taylor. The Badgers' rising star had trouble finding his shot early, scoring just four points in the first half on 2-of-6 shooting. He ended up with 13 points, but still shot just 4-for-11 for the game.
Taylor also found himself in foul trouble. His fourth infraction was a bizarre technical foul call with 4:17 remaining in the game. Leuer appeared to commit a charge on a driving layup, but an official gave public address announcer Mike Mahnke the wrong information, and Mahnke relayed that the Wisconsin foul was on Taylor. Taylor couldn't believe it and began protesting to the referees, who slapped him with the technical. When Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan went to the officials to sort things out, it was determined that a charge on Leuer was the correct original call, but the technical on Taylor stood.
"I obviously knew that I was the one that ran into him," Leuer said. "I didn't know if maybe after I passed the ball Jordan ran into him, or somebody else knocked him down. Otherwise I would have gone over to the ref and told him I was the one that went into him. I don't really know what Jordan said, I think he just said the foul wasn't on him. The ref gave him a technical, and later he said that was the wrong thing to do. Refs are going to miss calls here and there."
Despite Taylor's struggles, the Badgers never trailed and even built a 19-point lead in the second half. Nankivil's scoring outburst, as well as a solid contribution from freshman guard Josh Gasser (11 points), gave Wisconsin all it needed. That has to be encouraging for a team that has occasionally struggled to find scoring options beyond Taylor and Leuer.
With first-place Ohio State's loss at Purdue earlier today, the Badgers find themselves just two games behind the Buckeyes in the loss column and one game behind the Boilermakers. Each team has four games to play. Wisconsin will get another shot to beat Ohio State, but they must play in Columbus, which looks to be a monumental task. Three of the Badgers' final four games are on the road, and they have struggled to beat quality teams away from the Kohl Center.
"We haven't shot very well on the road," Leuer acknowledged. "The law of statistics says there is going to be one game where we get hot on the road, too. We have too many good shooters, too many good players for that to continue. I definitely think that we're going to find a rhythm on the road as well."
"We're going to need to (find a rhythm on the road)," Gasser said. "We have to keep shooting well whether we're home or away. Just have to find a rhythm if we can."
Wisconsin faces three teams currently in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings, so anything less than a 3-1 finish would be a disappointment. While Ohio State is not likely to drop two of their next four, much less three, Purdue still has three road games to play and a home date with Illinois, so second place is not out of reach.
Then it will be time for the annual callout of experts who predicted with great certainty that this would finally be the year Wisconsin finished outside of the conference's top four.
And so it goes in Badgerland.