Friday, December 31, 2010

Going native: Leuer, Taylor lead Badgers past Minnesota

Minnesota had some big numbers going for it in Tuesday’s Big Ten Conference opener against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center.

The 13th-ranked Golden Gophers pulled down 42 rebounds –18 more than the Badgers – and scored 16 second-chance points. They also held a 22-point advantage in terms of points in the paint.

In the end, however, it was the Badgers’ small numbers that made the difference. Like an NCAA season-low two turnovers and one missed free throw.
The 24th-ranked Badgers did the little things right and benefitted from big-time performances from Minnesota natives Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor to score a 68-60 win over their Border Battle rival.

The victory snapped a three-game win streak in the series for Minnesota and gave Wisconsin its eighth-consecutive win in a Big Ten opener.

“We took care of the ball, made good decisions for the most part, and scoring 68 points off that team is a pretty good accomplishment,” Taylor said. “They have some long, athletic guys who can really defend. That’s a good team.

“We’re just happy to have the win.”

Taylor poured in a game-high 22 points to go with seven assists, while Leuer scored 16 and pulled down nine rebounds. The duo combined to go 14-for-15 from the free throw line – including a perfect 7-of-7 over the final 1:12 of the game to salt away the win.

The Badgers needed that effort against a Minnesota team that battled back from a double-digit deficit to take the lead with seven minutes to play.
That advantage was short-lived, as the Badgers snagged the lead right back on a 3-pointer by Keaton Nankivil – who finished with 11 points -- but Minnesota refused to let UW pull away.

Taylor added another trey on UW’s next possession, but the Badgers held a tenuous one-point lead, at 59-58, with less than 1 1/2 minutes remaining.

That’s when Taylor came through with a game-changing play. He drove to the basket and -- instead of kicking to the perimeter in the face of pressure -- used a shot fake to convert a tough left-handed basket, draw a foul and set up a three-point play.

Taylor converted the free throw and bumped the Badgers’ lead to four points.

“All season I look at Jordan as a floor leader in the way he controls the tempo of our team,” Nankivil said. “Tonight, I saw him pushing through some fatigue, and a lot of minutes against some very tough guards defensively.

“As a teammate, to see him do that, it really inspires us to keep going.”

Ralph Sampson III hit a jumper on the other end for Minnesota, but Leuer came up with a clutch offensive rebound on the Badgers’ next trip.

The board came with 26 seconds left and the shot clock off, forcing the Gophers to foul. From there, Leuer and Taylor combined to hit seven straight free throws to ice the win.

“I still think the biggest play of the game was Jon’s offensive rebound,” Taylor said. “We were up by two and that rebound allowed us to get the ball and shoot free throws the rest of the game.”

In addition to Leuer and Taylor, fellow Minnesota native Jared Berggren contributed eight points, four rebounds and three blocks off the bench.

Despite pulling down 17 offensive rebounds, Minnesota finished with only two more field goals than the Badgers. Still, it was enough to help the Gophers grab the advantage in the first half.

Minnesota took a 19-14 lead before Taylor erased a slow start and scored nine straight points for Wisconsin, the final two on free throws that sparked a 9-2 run to put the Badgers ahead 30-24.

Leuer hit a 3-pointer to give him 1,000 career points in the first half – becoming the 36th player in UW history to do so -- and Wisconsin pushed the lead to 40-30 early in the second off another 3 by Leuer and a jumper in the lane by Taylor.

Minnesota is one of only three Big Ten opponents to win at the Kohl Center during head coach Bo Ryan’s tenure, but the Gophers couldn't repeat the feat on Tuesday.

That’s because of Taylor, who had just five total points against Minnesota in three previous games, and Leuer, who had averaged 6.6 points in five games against the Gophers.

It’s also due to the fact that UW turned the ball over just twice. In Minnesota’s overtime win at the Kohl Center two years ago, the Gophers forced Wisconsin into 18 turnovers.

“It was a big win for us,” Leuer said. “They’ve kind of had our number over the past couple of years, so to get this one felt good, definitely.”

Now the Badgers turn their attention to their first Big Ten road matchup, which comes Sunday against No. 25 Illinois. Tip-off from Champaign, Ill., is set for 5 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.

“Like Coach Ryan said after the game, we’re 1-0 in the Big Ten and we have 17 more to go," Leuer said. "That kind of put it into perspective for us that it is only one game.”

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