Taylor's scoring assault, Wisconsin's defensive clampdown fuel team's stunning comeback over lowly Penn State
MADISON, Wis. - If the Badgers had offered their fans free basketball in the form of an overtime period with the last-place Nittany Lions before Sunday's game, few would have accepted the offer. A cushy, 17-point victory similar to the first time these teams played would be just fine, thank you.
But five extra minutes is exactly what it took for #18 Wisconsin (16-4, 6-2 Big Ten) to finish its second straight comeback victory, 79-71, over Penn State (8-11, 0-7 Big Ten) Sunday at the Kohl Center.
The game was a more frustrating version of what took place here just four days ago, when the Badgers needed sophomore reserve Rob Wilson to spark a furious rally to overtake Michigan.
This time the catalyst was Jordan Taylor, who had struggled mightily as a starter against Ohio State and Michigan, and most of the way through this one.
With 2:02 remaining in regulation, the Badgers trailed 60-52 and were in danger of dropping their first home game to an unranked opponent in four years. Then, Taylor scored the game's next eight points to tie it up at 60 with 26 seconds to play. The sophomore hit two three-pointers after starting the game 0-of-6 from beyond the arc. His jumper to tie the game bought the Badgers a second chance they probably didn't deserve.
Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis was about as stunned as the sellout crowd was at his team's inability to protect what was once a 16-point second-half lead.
"I've never been around a group of guys that play hard, play pretty well for long periods of time and we just make a big mistake at a crucial time," DeChellis said. "We've done that all year and that's just very, very unfortunate."
Taylor was far from finished after 40 minutes, and poured in ten points during the overtime period. For those keeping score, the young guard notched 18 in the final 7:02 - after scoring just two in the game's first 37:58.
Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said patience and perseverance paid off for Taylor, as well as for the rest of his squad.
"It's just the young men that we have that can make something like that happen when it seems like everything is going the other way," Ryan said. "They do not get frustrated. They just stayed within themselves. When people take away one thing, you have to find another, and we did."
Taylor even suggested his team's ability to stare down double-digit deficits in two games this week and rally to win both is something that wasn't there a year ago.
"Last year against Purdue, I know (Robbie) Hummel hit a big shot and we were on clips, like three of us, with our heads down," Taylor said. "And this year I think we kept battling. I hadn't hit a shot in three halves, so I figured one had to go down eventually. Then one went down and I kept shooting and, fortunately, I started to get hot a little bit."
A bad habit
While the Badgers deserve plenty of credit for displaying the kind of toughness and resiliency that make them so hard to beat, it is certainly cause for concern that they found themselves trailing the worst team in the Big Ten by 16 in the second half at home.
Between Sunday's lackluster effort and Wednesday's abysmal shooting performance against Michigan, Wisconsin may have just concluded the least impressive 2-0 week in conference play this season.
Suffice it to say the Badgers' chances of digging themselves out of such a hole at Purdue this Thursday are miniscule.
Unfortunately, in the absence of junior forward Jon Leuer, they seem hell-bent on making things harder for themselves by jacking up an absurd number of ill-advised three-point attempts. One game after going 4-of-24 from three-point land against Michigan, the team put up 33 long balls Sunday. At one point in the game, they were 3-of-17 on those tries.
What's amazing is no one seems to mind. Taylor's late success with the three-ball after floundering early may even be damaging to the team, because it encourages the other players to just "keep shooting." The reality is that the Badgers' inability to hit those threes throughout most of the game, and their unwillingness to take better shots, produced inexcusable deficits the last two games.
"We knew shots would fall," said Jason Bohannon, who went 3-of-10 from beyond the arc. "It didn't look like it at times, but there were stretches where we got hot. We've been getting good looks. The majority of [the threes] are good shots, we just haven't been hitting them. It's just a matter of hitting them."
Keaton Nankivil won't beg to differ, but he should. The junior forward made one of his seven three-point attempts against Michigan before changing his approach Sunday and trying just one. The result? 17 points on efficient 7-of-9 shooting. He even got to the free throw line twice, the way forwards are supposed to.
Calling all big men
Still, it's tough to put all the blame on the guards' questionable shot selection, when they are carrying a disproportionate amount of the team's weight. Taylor, Bohannon and Trevon Hughes combined for 55 points, and their offensive production is really the only reason the Badgers' comeback was meaningful.
Leuer's injury has exposed the collective underachievement of the big men currently in the program, and it looks ugly. There are three players on Wisconsin's roster physically capable of filling the void of Leuer's 6-10 frame. All three are on scholarship to play basketball at UW. So why, oh why, in Leuer's absence, have Jared Berggren, Ian Markolf and J.P.Gavinski not seen a minute of playing time?
The answer isn't youth or inexperience. If it were, then Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz, Wilson and Taylor wouldn't see the floor, either.
As anyone who knows Ryan might predict, the three big men must be playing like the three stooges in practice. Ryan values his players' day-to-day performance as much as their in-game production. If Berggren, Markolf and Gavinski aren't getting their minutes, it's because Ryan does not believe they are qualified.
The problem, then, is why they are not. All three came in as highly regarded prospects, Berggren especially. There is a problem somewhere. Did the program misfire three times and lure the wrong players to Madison? Are they capable players, all of whom happen to be underachieving? Or is Wisconsin failing to develop its big men to their potential? This is a difficult question with perhaps more than one answer.
But understand this - if these guys were at all ready, they would be part of the solution to the problem of how to replace Leuer. When a team is taking more than half its shots from three-point range and getting out-rebounded 38-24 by the worst team in the conference at home, it welcomes any quality player with some size.
For now, Wisconsin's talented trio of guards must continue to carry the load. Even as they are running on fumes.