Badger seniors close out undefeated Kohl Center campaign with victory over Wildcats
MADISON, Wis. - It took the Badgers an entire season to run into a team that looked as comfortable shooting 3s at the Kohl Center as they do, but that still wasn't enough to prevent Wisconsin from finishing the season undefeated at home.
The Badgers (22-6, 12-4 Big Ten) prevailed over Northwestern (16-12, 6-11) by a comfortable 78-63 margin Sunday in Madison, finishing their home schedule a perfect 16-0. They will carry a 19-game win streak at the Kohl Center into next season.
It is just the third time in the last 80 years that a Wisconsin team has posted an unblemished record at home, all of which have come during Bo Ryan's stint as head coach. Ryan's record against Big Ten opponents at the Kohl Center is now 78-6.
So it was no surprise to see yet another class of Badger seniors close their careers with a victory on Dayton Street, particularly since they were facing a Northwestern team that lost to Wisconsin by 32 points in Evanston last month.
"We are very comfortable at the Kohl Center," senior forward Jon Leuer said. "We are just in our normal routine, shooting at the baskets and using the balls that we always shoot with. We just have so much repetition there and I think that gives us a little more confidence with our shots. We just know that with that crowd behind us, with the Badger fans behind us, when we are at the Kohl Center we don't plan on losing, ever."
The Badgers wasted no time on their way to another win at home, opening the game on a 9-0 run, including points from seniors Leuer, Tim Jarmusz and Keaton Nankivil. That prompted Wildcats head coach Bill Carmody to use an early timeout.
From there, Northwestern could only trim Wisconsin's lead to six points before a surge late in the first half gave the Badgers a 43-30 halftime lead. Three-pointers from freshman guard Josh Gasser and Jarmusz, as well as a layup by sophomore forward Mike Bruesewitz, spearheaded an 8-2 Wisconsin run to close the opening period.
The Badgers led comfortably at the break, despite allowing the Wildcats to make seven 3s. Northwestern shot 50 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes, but Wisconsin was better, shooting an absurd 65.4 percent overall.
The Wildcats caught fire from three-point land again in the second half, hitting four triples in a span of under nine minutes to cut a 51-35 Badger lead to 58-55 with 7:14 remaining in the game. Senior guard Michael Thompson, who finished with 19 points, drained two of those, while sophomore Drew Crawford (12 points) and junior forward John Shurna (14 points) added the others. Ryan said his team wasn't fazed.
"When you prepare for them, you talk about those runs," Ryan said. "I've seen them do that to other teams, and the other team gets down, gets a little disjointed. You just have to be ready to not concede. We scored pretty efficiently at our end, and we had to do that."
Wisconsin did that by closing the game on a 20-8 run, which allowed Ryan to insert each of his seniors, including little-used center J.P. Gavinski, into the game for one final ovation at the Kohl Center.
Leuer posed a matchup problem for the Wildcats and abused Serbian center Luka Mirkovic all evening. He led all scorers with 26 points on efficient 9-of-14 shooting and consistently drew fouls and got to the free throw line, where he went 8-of-11.
"We got (Luka) Mirkovic into some foul trouble, size wise we were able to touch the post for that reason," Ryan said. "I thought our guys did a good job, especially Jon Leuer, of scoring in the post."
Nightly production from Leuer has become a virtual guarantee, as the Senior CLASS Award finalist has scored in double figures in 35 straight games. He tied for the team lead in rebounds with six. On the other end of the floor, Leuer held Mirkovic without a point to go with three fouls.
Nankivil raised his season scoring average into double figures (10.1 points per game) with a 15-point effort on 6-of-9 shooting. Despite missing his first two 3-point attempts, the senior forward kept at it and drained his next two. He has actually increased his production in Big Ten play, now averaging a critical 11.9 points per game. He also seemed touched by the emotions of Senior Night.
"It is a pretty incredible feeling, all of the thanks that you want to give to people," Nankivil said. "I wish I could do a 20-minute video of people that I want to thank. I am going to have to find a way to get the word out somehow."
In order to prevent teams from keying in on Leuer and junior point guard Jordan Taylor, who had another solid all-around game with 16 points and seven assists, Nankivil needs to continue to make teams pay when he gets open shots.
Jarmusz was dependable for 35 minutes, sinking 2-of-3 threes and tying for the team lead with six rebounds. He did not commit a turnover or a foul.
Walkon Wquinton Smith made the only shot he took, a beautiful 3 from the right corner. While fellow seniors Bret Valentyn and J.P. Gavinski failed to score in their final home game, both managed to see time and drew loud cheers.
With March 1 just two days away, Wisconsin appears to be a team that is playing its best basketball as the postseason looms. After months of tinkering, Ryan appears to have settled on a rotation he is comfortable with, sending Bruesewitz and redshirt sophomore Ryan Evans in first off the bench and letting Taylor, Leuer and Nankivil handle the bulk of the scoring.
The Badgers need to improve on their ability to win games away from home, as their 3-4 record in conference road games indicates. They will get opportunities to work on that, however, as their final two Big Ten games will be played in hostile venues, followed by the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. By the time the Badgers know their seed and first-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament, they will have had time to get comfortable with unfamiliar balls and rims.
The party is over at the Kohl Center, but Wisconsin is hoping there is still a lot more to come.