Wisconsin picks up third road win of the Big Ten season
Tied 26-26 at halftime, Wisconsin was on pace to send host Illinois to a second straight conference loss. The only problem was the Badgers weren't playing very well.
The Badgers (16-5, 5-3 Big Ten) were fortunate to be in such a good position after turning the ball over eight times and missing 6-of-8 free throws in the first half. Rather than crumble when No. 22 Illinois (15-5, 4-3) took a quick lead in the second half, however, the Badgers hung tough and emerged with a key 67-63 road victory.
Wisconsin's proficient 3-point shooting (9-for-22) was just one reason the Badgers were better on Sunday afternoon. Jared Berggren was able to neutralize Meyers Leonard and pull him away from the hoop, which allowed UW to maintain a 24-22 edge in the paint. And while the final statistics only show four fastbreak points for Wisconsin compared to three for Illinois, the Badgers pushed the ball just enough in transition to keep the Illini honest. That opened up the long ball for Wisconsin, who outscored Illinois (3-for-12) by 18 points behind the arc.
Three consecutive turnovers provided an ominous start for the Badgers as they spotted the Illini a 7-2 lead early. But just as they did against Nebraska two games prior, Wisconsin locked down its ballhandling in the second half, committing only two turnovers the rest of the way.
Both coaches made substitutions early to shake the offensive doldrums of the first 10 minutes. Bo Ryan's bench would prove to be the most effective group, outscoring Illinois' subs 14-0. Ben Brust scored nine points in 28 minutes, while Rob Wilson added five.
Sophomore Joseph Bertrand kept Illinois afloat with 12 points on 5-of-7 first-half shooting. Bertrand was about the only thing that went right offensively during the opening 20 minutes for Bruce Weber's team, which went 10-of-29 (34.5%) in the first half.
Much of the credit for UW's defense goes to outstanding individual efforts by Berggren on Leonard and Josh Gasser on Brandon Paul. Leonard and Paul combined for just four points before the break. Paul -- the Big Ten's leading scorer coming into the game -- finished with 10 points and was held to six points until the waning seconds of the game.
Even so, Wisconsin found itself in a tough predicament with just under 10 minutes to go, trailing 50-46. All three starting Badger forwards had three fouls and Leonard had gotten on track with Berggren on the bench.
Leonard broke a 32-32 tie at the 15:59 mark with a free throw and scored 11 more of his 16 points over the ensuing six-minute stretch. Ryan had no choice to bring Berggren back in. The junior big man rewarded his coach by holding Leonard to but one more basket the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, Berggren continued his stellar offensive play en route to 18 points. The Badgers got contributions from all sides, inside and out, to take a 55-53 lead they would not relinquish with 4:56 to play.
The biggest hoop of the game, however, may have been Jordan Taylor's back-breaking 15-foot jumper over three defenders a few minutes later as the shot clock expired that extended UW's lead to 62-57 with 32 ticks left on the game clock.
Taylor looked like an All-American after shrugging off three early misses from the charity stripe. Once again the senior made the freebies when they counted, hitting 5-of-6 in the final seconds to ice the win. He finished with a game-high 19 points, nine rebounds and five assists with no turnovers.
Also encouraging for the Badgers was the ability to get to the rack with neither Gasser nor Bruesewitz particularly aggressive on offense, though they did combine to shoot 50% (3-of-6) from deep.
Leonard finished with 11 rebounds, but UW won the rebounding battle, 33-29.
Wisconsin has now won four games in a row after an 1-3 league start and sits all alone in fourth place in the Big Ten standings. The Badgers are one half game ahead of Illinois and one half game behind co-leaders Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!