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Finishing Strong: Badgers mount comeback on Purdue

Evans provides much-needed spark off the bench

MADISON, Wis. - The few Wisconsin basketball fans who were prevented from making it to the Kohl Center for an early tip because of the blizzard raging through Madison missed one of the most thrilling Badger games of the season.

For the vast majority of the 17,230 who braved the fierce winter conditions, Tuesday was another one of those big nights on Dayton St.

No. 18/19 Wisconsin (16-5, 6-3 Big Ten) ran its home record to 12-0, including 3-0 against ranked opponents, by knocking off No. 10/11 Purdue (18-5, 7-3) in a 66-59 heart-stopper. The victory evened the Badgers and Boilermakers in the loss column of the Big Ten standings with three apiece. The two teams trail only No. 1 Ohio State (22-0, 9-0).

What better place than the Kohl Center to rebound from an ugly 56-52 loss at unranked Penn State, a game in which the Badgers blew a nine-point halftime lead? While it has always been a tough venue for opposing teams, Wisconsin has been a particularly tough out here lately, winning 33 of its last 34 in Madison. The Badgers' 4-5 mark away from home only underscores how improved their play is on their own floor.

Just three days after the loss to the Nittany Lions, the Badgers appeared hungry as the game began. After Penn State dominated Wisconsin on the boards, the UW big men were determined to set a tone early against Purdue. The Badgers won the rebounding battle 32-25 over the Boilermakers, including 12-4 on the offensive glass. Wisconsin held Purdue to its second-lowest rebounding total of the season.

"That's us being active," Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. "We've got guys that can do that. They just have to do it all the time."

Senior forward Jon Leuer pulled down 13 rebounds, matching his career high. His Boilermaker counterpart, JaJuan Johnson, collected just four.

"Overall we were unhappy with the way we played Penn State," Leuer said. "We knew a hard-nosed team like Purdue, just like us, would come in here and try to get on the glass and just beat us up physically. We knew that coming in, and it was important for us to get on the glass and get second-chance points. We're so good at breaking teams down with our cuts and the more opportunities we get, the better. We definitely wanted to get on the glass, and keep JaJuan [Johnson] and [D.J.] Byrd and all those guys off the glass. They go hard and we did a good job tonight."

After the unequal distribution of scoring in the loss to Penn State, in which Leuer, Jordan Taylor and Keaton Nankivil combined to score all but seven of Wisconsin's points, the Badgers received valuable contributions from up and down the lineup Tuesday.

Wisconsin made Purdue look one-dimensional as just three Boilermakers tallied more than six points apiece. Meanwhile, four Badgers scored in double figures, including the struggling Ryan Evans, who may have finally had that breakout performance.

Evans scored 10 points, all from the floor, on efficient 5-of-9 shooting in 19 minutes. Despite finishing one point shy of a career high, his contributions were most meaningful because of when and how they occurred.

The Badgers trailed by six points after a Johnson free throw with 10:12 to play. That's when Evans took a feed from Taylor and slammed it home, electrifying the crowd and pulling Wisconsin within four.

"Ryan has been saying what he can do for this team all year long, and he showed it tonight," Taylor said. "He can even add from there. Anytime you can get a guy that can get the crowd up like Ryan can, it's big. I think that dunk was big, it was almost perfect timing. It doesn't get any better than that. It got the crowd back into it."

The Badgers battled back but still trailed by a point as the clock ticked under a minute to play. As Taylor took the ball up the court, everyone in the building thought the junior point guard would be the one to try and retake the lead for UW. Instead, Evans took a pass near the free throw line and, without hesitation, drained the mid-range jumper to put Wisconsin up 60-59.

"Those are the shots that he can hit," Ryan said. "That's a high percentage shot for him. It wasn't a surprise, if you look at the baskets he hit last year, those are the type of shots that he shoots a high percentage on."

From there, the Badgers never relinquished their lead, but Evans wasn't done. Instead, he forced a jump ball on an E'Twaun Moore drive with the possession arrow favoring Wisconsin. Taylor made one of two free throws to increase the lead to five. When Moore missed a 3-pointer on the ensuing Boilermaker possession, Taylor grabbed the rebound and saw Evans streaking down the court, unguarded. He lobbed the ball to the redshirt sophomore from Phoenix, who scored his final two points of the evening in style with another slam dunk. The final score was as Evans left it, 66-59.

"He's a human being, who, when you get a little bit of success, the tendency is to turn it into more," Ryan said. "What he's been doing in some other games is charging or walking, missing a defensive assignment, things that set the tone the other way."

The emergence of complementary players has been a theme of the 2010-11 season, mostly because of the extent to which it hasn't happened.

But a performance like Tuesday's against one of the best teams in the country could be the turning point for a young player like Evans, who is still averaging just 1.8 points per game in Big Ten play.

"It's been a rough year for me," Evans said. "But [my coaches and teammates] continuing to believe in me and I knew something had to get me going."

It is also worth noting that freshman guard Josh Gasser scored 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting, with four rebounds, two assists and a steal. Sophomore Mike Bruesewitz failed to score but provided contagious energy in his 14 minutes, making two assists, snagging a rebound and picking up two steals. Even walk-on senior Wquinton Smith got in on the action and exchanged words (and light shoves) with a few Boilermakers after fighting for a loose ball.

"They're basketball players on a team," Ryan said. "When they're on the floor, we know it's inside each of them. There's no question that was the difference in the game. It added to the whole scheme, defensively they did a nice job, since Purdue can hurt you in many ways."

Make no mistake. This team belongs to Taylor (15 points, seven rebounds, five assists) and Leuer, who dropped 24 points to increase his average to 19.4 per game. But the Big Three can't do it alone, especially against a team like Purdue on a night when Nankivil only scored six points.

"Taylor is a tough match-up, Jon Leuer is a tough match-up," Purdue head coach Matt Painter said. "[But] I thought the difference tonight was Josh Gasser and Ryan Evans, those two guys stepped up and that's what you need."

If one or two of the group of Evans, Gasser, Bruesewitz, Smith and steady senior Tim Jarmusz can provide a spark during each game, Wisconsin's schedule sets up nicely for a few more resume-building wins as the season continues.