Despite the win, Leuer and Co. have a lot of work to do
MADISON, Wis. -- That wasn't exactly how they drew it up, but it counts.
Jon Leuer scored 11 points and made a key block with 11 seconds remaining to secure a 70-63 win for the Badgers Sunday despite UW only scoring one field goal in the final 11 minutes of the game.
But this isn't exactly the kind of play that was expected of the Badgers with Leuer back in the lineup. After losing 68-52 Thursday at Minnesota with the junior forward playing for the first time in nine games, UW nearly blew a 14 point lead Sunday at home and probably would have it weren't for a couple bad misses by Northwestern and a favorable call by the referees in the final minute.
The Wildcats came into Sunday's game having never won at the Kohl Center. Against Bo Ryan in Madison, they had lost seven games by average margin of 19.7 points per game. And even though Northwestern is in the midst of one of its best seasons in program history, the Badgers' second-half play is somewhat worrisome with only three games left in the regular season.
The general thought was that Leuer would come back and UW would hit its stride at the right time of the year.
If only it were that easy.
Leuer was noticeably more comfortable Sunday than he was in his return Thursday night, but the second half proved that no one is going to be able to snap their fingers and gel this team together.
In the first half, it looked like it might be that easy. UW closed the opening frame on a 12-2 run and took a 14-point lead to the locker room after shooting 75 percent in the first 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the Badgers would only make five more field goals the rest of the way.
Wisconsin still had a 14-point lead with 12:58 left in the game, but NU used a 13-2 run to close the gap to 57-54 with 6:42 remaining. The Wildcats extended their 1-3-1 zone beyond half court and forced a flurry of Badger turnovers. Wisconsin committed six turnovers in a span of seven minutes and Northwestern turned them into seven points.
Bohannon ended the run with a three pointer to put UW up 60-54. Amazingly, that was Wisconsin's only field goal in the final 11 minutes of the game. The Badgers made 10-of-15 free throws down the stretch to secure the victory and got a little help along the way.
John Shurna, who led all scorers with 26 points, missed a short jumper off the glass with 1:02 remaining that would have tied the game. Instead, Leuer -- who showed in the final minute why UW missed him so much -- grabbed the rebound. Tim Jarmusz was then the beneficiary of a phantom foul call on Shurna 33 seconds later and he split the free throws to put UW up 66-63.
Leuer then made the biggest play of the game when he blocked Thompson's layup attempt with 11 seconds left. Bohannon grabbed the loose ball and hit two free throws to secure the win. He led UW with 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
"There's the experience we get back on the floor in those situations," Ryan said after the game. "Even with that tape on his hand, [Leuer's] hands in the post are the best among the bigs. His activity inside, both offensively and defensively was a big factor down the stretch."
But Wisconsin will have to do better if it wants to have any chance at winning the Big Ten Tournament and securing a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Technically, UW's chances at winning the regular season title aren't gone yet, but the team fans saw Sunday is not good enough to compete with the Big Ten's top teams.
That doesn't mean the Badgers can't get it together in time to make a deep postseason run. On a day when Wisconsin's 2000 Final Four team was honored before halftime, the players, coaches and fans should all know that any team can make a deep run if it plays its best basketball in March. Remember, Dick Bennett's 2000 team needed to win its last regular season game against No. 14 Indiana and win two games in the conference tournament to even make the NCAA Tournament. In the end, they were among the last four standing.
The good news is that Leuer looked a lot better Sunday and the pieces are all there to get better in a hurry.
"I'm feeling pretty good," Leuer said. "I still feel like I have a long ways to go. Everyday I'm just trying to get better and kind of get in more of a rhythm with this team."
If and when that happens, Wisconsin can be one of the top teams in the country, but they certainly aren't there yet.