MADISON, Wis. - Heading into Sunday's game with Illinois, the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers were determined to send their two-man senior class out with style. They've made a tradition out of it recently. Bo Ryan had never lost on senior day in his ten previous years coaching the Badgers, and that streak stretched to 11 games as Wisconsin (23-8, 12-6 Big Ten) downed Illinois (17-14, 6-12) 70-56 in the Kohl Center.
Senior point guard Jordan Taylor and sophomore guard Josh Gasser led the way for the Badgers with 16 points apiece, while senior guard Rob Wilson had eight points on 2-of-6 shooting from behind the arc. On an emotionally charged day like Sunday it would have been easy for the Badgers to lose their focus, especially since the Badgers are locked in to the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
"It was definitely kind of a surreal experience," Taylor said after the game. "It was fun to be out there in front of the Grateful Red one last time."
Both Taylor and Wilson admitted to not being overly emotional before the game, but it was clear in the post-game press conferences that the two seniors were happy to close out their Kohl Center careers with one last win.
"It feels great to come out here and get a win," Wilson said. "It will always put the icing on the cake on senior night."
In a sense, being in control of their emotions worked in the Badgers' favor. Head coach Bo Ryan said his team was able to avoid the highs and lows of senior day other teams might struggle with, and it paid off in the end for the Badgers.
"It was all about playing Illinois, it wasn't about anything else," Ryan said after the game. "I thought our guys played at a high level. They stuck to who they were, and didn't get away from that. The emotion comes later, after the game's over and you're sitting there looking at the baby pictures."
Whatever it was that kept the Badgers on an even keel, it was clear early on they wouldn't be struggling with the same shooting woes that have dogged them periodically throughout the season. The Badgers jumped out to a 14-2 lead early in the game on the strength of Taylor and Wilson's early three-pointers, and cruised over a struggling Illini team to a 31-18 halftime lead.
But despite shooting just 6-of-24 on field goals in the first half and 10-of-34 from the field overall, the Illini weren't out of the game just then. Led by junior guard Brandon Paul, who had 22 points in the game to lead all scorers, the Illini managed to hang around and eventually cut the Badgers' lead to nine points about five minutes into the second half.
But in the end it wasn't enough to overcome the Badgers, who put the Illini in too deep of a hole with a balanced offensive attack in both halves. All but one Wisconsin starter finished the day with double-digit points, including junior forward Ryan Evans, who extended his double-figure scoring streak to 10 games.
"I like that, especially at this time of year if you have guys looking for each other," Ryan said. "It means we're distributing the ball, and guys are taking their looks."
That's a good sign for the Badgers as they move out of the regular season and into post-season play, as they've been over-reliant on Taylor at times this season. Spreading the ball around has worked well for them in previous games this season, meaning teams can't rely on double-teaming Taylor like they might be tempted to.
With the win, the Badgers are on a three-game winning streak heading in to the Big Ten Tournament. They've earned a Thursday bye, and will play either the fifth seed or the twelfth-seeded team on Friday. The fifth-seed will be either No. 20 Indiana or Purdue, depending on which team wins their contest this evening, while the twelfth-seed will be either Penn State or Nebraska.
That three-game winning streak could certainly give the Badgers momentum, but with the bye they are forced to play a team that's already won a game the day before.
"Anytime you have more games on the schedule at this time of year is a good thing," Ryan said. "Again, we're waiting on the winner of a game- that has worked both ways (in the past)."
But for now, the Badgers have four days until their next game. They're on a winning streak, and got another chance to send out their senior class with a win. It's clear the Badgers have high expectations for themselves in the postseason, and we'll soon see if they can live up to what they think they are capable of.
"Anytime you can go in there with three straight wins, I guess you could say we're on a bit of a roll right now," Taylor said. "We're going to go down (to Indianapolis) expecting to win the whole thing, but we'll just take it game by game and see what happens."