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Passing the First Test

Taylor overcomes erratic start to lead Badgers to crucial Big Ten victory in unique atmosphere

MADISON, Wis. - For several minutes during the first half of Wisconsin's win over No. 14 Minnesota Tuesday night, junior point guard Jordan Taylor looked more like his predecessor, Trevon Hughes, did during his freshman year than a Bob Cousy Award nominee.

Taylor missed his first four shots, including three questionable 3-point attempts, committed a foul and failed to get to the line himself through the first 12 minutes of the contest.

Then, a light turned on. With his team trailing by five, Taylor finally drained a shot from beyond the arc to pull the Badgers within two. The three points were the first of 12 Taylor would score in the final minutes of the first period.

Not coincidentally, the Badgers (11-2, 1-0 Big Ten) would trail only once more in their 68-60 victory over the Golden Gophers (11-2, 0-1), by one point late in the second half.

While senior forward Jon Leuer is arguably Wisconsin's most talented player, Taylor could very well be its most valuable. With a marked lack of guard depth, the Badgers will need Taylor to be a steadying force for them to be successful over the course of a grueling Big Ten schedule.

"You've got to love his character," head coach Bo Ryan said of Taylor. "You've got to love his demeanor, his work ethic. I'll never get tired of saying those kinds of things about a young man that handles himself the way Jordan does. If you get tired of hearing it, plug your ears. Jordan's the real deal. He is definitely our leader on the court. I'm glad he's on our team."

"I look at the Jordan as the floor leader and the way that he controls the tempo of our team," senior forward Keaton Nankivil said. "How he plays is really controlling how we, as a team, end up playing. I saw him pushing through some fatigue against some very tough guards defensively. It really inspires us to keep going."

Taylor hurt his team more than he helped early on, uncharacteristically heaving contested three-pointers early in the shot clock, sometimes without even making a pass. He committed his lone turnover in the first 20 minutes.

But he quickly settled down and ended up with 22 points and seven assists. He went 8-for-9 from the free throw line, including 3-for-3 in the final 1:12 to ice the Badgers' first conference win of the season, their eighth straight victory in a Big Ten opener.

Not a bad way to make a statement against your home state school.

"It's fun to play well against Minnesota, I'm not going to lie," Taylor said. "But we try and do that against every team. They've got a good team over there. I don't think they're going to go into their locker room regretting that they don't have me and Jon [Leuer]."

Okay. Not a bad way to make a statement to the entire Big Ten, then.

Fans make up for absence of fixtures

The atmosphere at home games over winter break is always an uncertainty because of the number of students and season-ticket holders who are not in town.

But fans packed the Kohl Center to see the Badgers take on their 14th-ranked border rival, and Taylor, Leuer and Co. put on a show that electrified the building.

"People must have given their tickets to friend who really can't get in because they don't have tickets," Ryan theorized. "Over the break, we've played at places that weren't even half full. For that kind of a crowd to be out on the [28th] of December with that kind of energy, that was loud! The people who got the tickets for those that are away, I thought that was a good exchange, because those people appreciated being in here for this."

Not even the football team's upcoming appearance in the Rose Bowl could interrupt the Badgers' dominance in Madison. As a result of the success of Bret Bielema's team, the UW Band, Spirit Squad and Bucky Badger had already left for California before this game. A recording of "On, Wisconsin" was pumped in through the Kohl Center speakers when the Badgers took the court, and timeouts were filled with contests, promotions and recorded music. It felt more like an NBA game than a Tuesday night in Madison. Nonetheless, the fan support never wavered and the team fed off of the crowd's energy on its way to yet another win at home.

Bo Ryan's squad is now 144-11 all-time at the Kohl Center, including 70-6 against Big Ten teams and 22-7 against teams ranked in the AP top 25.

Badgers just find ways to win

While Taylor and Leuer continued to provide consistent production, combining for 38 points, nine assists and 10 rebounds, Wisconsin's quest for complementary scoring appears to have ended. Several role players had solid games for the Badgers.

Nankivil scored in double figures (11 points) for the fourth time in his last five games.

Senior guard-forward Tim Jarmusz is red-hot. He has made seven of his last eight 3-point attempts, good for 17 points over his last two games.

"We never changed how we've coached him," Ryan said. "We've never changed what we've told him, other than if you're open, you shoot it. Keep playing hard, play defense, chase the shooters."

Sophomore forward-center Jared Berggren showed off his natural post moves in 21 minutes on the floor against Minnesota. He scored eight points on efficient 4-for-6 shooting.

"A guy that has a little fire, passion and will," Ryan said of Berggren. "He definitely gave it here tonight. I think he should do that every game. Jared's getting there. We've always felt he's going to be a pretty good player."

In a game in which the Gophers outrebounded the Badgers 42 to 24, Wisconsin compensated by protecting the basketball, committing just two turnovers, making free throws and manufacturing points.

"I thought we did a great job of taking care of the ball," Ryan said. "I thought they were pretty active. We can shoot it better than that, but they're a tough team to score on. I thought our defense made all the difference in the world. Our players committed to it."

"We were just trying to match [the Gophers'] physicality and neutralize that," Taylor said. "They only shot 11 free throws, so for the most part we did a good job. Any time you have two turnovers in a game, you give yourself a pretty good chance to win."

It's a formula the Badgers will need to maintain if they are to make a run at the Big Ten title. The journey continues Sunday, when Wisconsin faces another ranked opponent in No. 23 Illinois.

"I reminded the guys we've got 17 [Big Ten regular season games] left," Ryan said with a smile.

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