No. 15 Wisconsin takes care of Illinois
The first time Wisconsin and Illinois met this season, the Illini couldn’t miss on the way to winning their fifth straight.
Badger forward Jon Leuer missed that game with a broken wrist and Jordan Taylor struggled with eight points.
Sunday was a different story.
Leuer and Taylor had 20 points apiece as the No. 15 Badgers won 72-57, dealing the Fighting Illini’s NCAA tournament hopes a significant blow.
"Jordan Taylor, what are you going to say?" Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "His heart’s twice as big as he is."
"Leuer’s obviously a great player," Illinois forward Bill Cole added. "He hurt us a little bit in the first half, parts of the second half. He’s a big difference in their team."
Wisconsin’s win gave the Badgers (23-7, 13-5 Big Ten) the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament, meaning they’ll face the Illini again on Friday in Indianapolis.
While the Badgers are a lock for the NCAA tournament, the Illini (18-13, 10-8) are probably in must-win mode. They have lost five of six and could miss the NCAAs for the second time in three seasons.
Wisconsin led by as many as 16 midway through the second half, but the Illini, according to coach Bruce Weber, wasted a chance to climb back in the game.
Leuer and Trevon Hughes — who finished with 14 points and a game-high 11 rebounds — both headed to the bench within about three minutes of each other midway through the half after picking up their fourth fouls. That gave the Illini, trailing 54-38, their best shot.
In the 2½ minutes they sat, Illinois cut a 14-point gap to nine, with Cole hitting two free throws to close within 54-43. A couple minutes later, Cole hit a 3-pointer that made it 55-48.
Before the crowd had a chance to settle back into their seats, Mike Davis stole the ball from Leuer, setting up a break that ended with a foul on Mike Tisdale, sending the 7-1 center to the line for a pair of free throws that cut the lead to 55-50.
Weber brought his team to the bench and reminded them the win was there for the taking.
"I said, ‘You’re going to have one opportunity to grab the game. You’ve got to play smart on both ends of the court,’" Weber said. "And we have three straight possessions on the other end — two air balls and a turnover on the offensive end.
"Sooner or later against a good team, they’re going to grab the game. And that’s what happened."
Keaton Nankivil put back a free throw miss by Hughes with 5:27 to play to stretch the Badger lead back to 57-50, and over the next three possessions, the Badgers held Illinois to only a pair of free throws while extending the lead to 60-52.
The Badgers held the Illini to seven points over the last seven minutes. Illinois was 2-9 from the floor over that stretch and 16 of 45 (35.6 percent) for the game.
Wisconsin hit 41.9 percent of its shots (26 of 62).
Ryan gave credit to his bench, which let Illinois close the gap but kept the Badgers in the lead while Leuer and Hughes were out of the game.
"They did a pretty good job of making sure that it didn’t get to the point where they caught us or got ahead of us," he said. "They stepped up big."
Tisdale led Illinois with 16 points and Cole had 14.
Midway through the first half, Illinois looked like it might give the Badgers a run. The Illini temporarily fixed an early rebounding drought — one that allowed the Badgers to take almost twice as many shots as the Illini in the game’s first 10 minutes — and took their first lead at 15-14 with 8:18 to play in the first half on a jump shot by Tisdale.
The teams traded leads four times over the next five minutes before the Badgers pulled away again, thanks in part to their rebounding. Wisconsin finished the game with a 40-30 edge on the boards and Illinois had only eight offensive rebounds.
When the Illini beat the Badgers 63-56 last month in Madison, Wisconsin shot 35.8 percent while Illinois was an efficient 53 percent from the floor.
Since then, the Illini have struggled with poor shooting and now Weber has to find a way to fix the problem if they want to stay with the Badgers in the Big Ten tournament.
"They’ve got one last chance to make the season a positive," Weber said. "But we’ve got to play smarter."