While No.12 Wisconsin will lose post presences Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil when they return to the Kohl Center next season, the Badgers appear more than set with junior Jordan Taylor and freshman Josh Gasser running the show in the backcourt.
The Badgers' big men did their damage, including a game-high 26 points from senior Jon Leuer, but Gasser and Taylor controlled the pace and the production to help Wisconsin finish off its third undefeated home season in 10 years with a 78-63 victory over Northwestern Sunday.
The victory helps Wisconsin (22-6, 12-4 Big Ten) keep an outside shot at earning a share of the conference championship. The Badgers remain two games behind first-place Ohio State (27-2, 14-2) – who play at Penn State Tuesday before hosting Wisconsin next Sunday - and one game behind second-place Purdue (24-5, 13-3) – who host Illinois Tuesday and travel to Iowa Saturday.
"It was definitely a good way to go out, getting the win and celebrating with our family and friends afterward," Leuer said. "We are very comfortable at the Kohl Center … and we don't plan on losing here ever, and we did that this year."
After spending two seasons apprenticing under Trevon Hughes, Taylor continues his rise. One of the 11 finalists for the Cousy Award, Taylor finished with 16 points, his 27th time this season he's reached double figures, and continued to take care of the ball, dishing out seven assists and two turnovers, putting his season average at 4.24. Should the season end today, Taylor's assist-to-turnover ratio will shatter the old NCAA record of 3.96.
"Jordan is always able to distribute and find guys in open spots," said Leuer. "He's been doing that all year long, just making great decisions."
When the Wildcats – who got a team-high 19 points from Michael Thompson - cut the lead to nine in the second half, Taylor again penetrating in to the lane, kicked the ball out to a wide-open Keaton Nankivil (15 points), who buried the wide-open 3-pointer at the elbow to extend the lead back to 12.
But much like the way Wisconsin had buried the opposition at home all season, Northwestern (16-12, 6-11) got a big pick-me-up from its perimeter shooting, finished the game 11 of 21 from three (52.4 percent) and eventually cut the lead to five with eight minutes left.
"When you prepare for them, you talk about those kinds of runs," UW coach Bo Ryan. "I've seen them do that to other teams and the other team gets down, maybe a little disjointed. There are going to go through those streaks and be ready to not concede."
Leuer showed no quit in the second half, especially when he was matched up junior Davide Curletti (18 points). Seemingly able to drive, post and shoot at will, Leuer's 26 points were a combination of jumper, dunks, layups and converting from the free throw line, scoring 15 of his points in the second half and setting a season high in free throw makes (8) and attempts (11).
They were timely, too. After John Shurna (14 points) hit Northwestern's 11th 3-pointer, cutting the lead to three with 7:14 left, Leuer posted Curletti and beat him with a right-handed hook shot, extended the lead back to five.
"My teammates did a great job of finding me in the post and once they got it in there, I just wanted to make a strong move toward the basket," Leuer said. "For the most part, I felt I did a pretty good job of that."
After two missed Wildcats threes, Taylor hit a triple and saw Nankivil rebound his difficult lay in for a 3-point play, extending the lead to 66-57 with 4:13 left. The Wildcats cut the lead back to seven once more, but Taylor, who connected on a deep three the possession before, found Nankivil for another open look to give Wisconsin a 73-63 edge with 1:43 remaining.
Northwestern never got closer the rest of the way, as the Wildcats only scored four points in the last four minutes.
"Jordan did a great job of drawing two guys and it's an open shot in a situation where if I pass it, it puts somebody else in a worse situation probably," said Nankivil. "I figured I might as well toss it up there and see what happens."
Unlike Taylor, Gasser has been in the mix since the beginning. His 21 points in the opener were the most by a freshman since 1993, his 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists against Northwestern in January made him the school's first triple-double recipient and his buzzer-beater bank shot last Wednesday helped the Badgers register a momentous road win, a key stat seeing as UW will play at least four more games this season away from the Kohl Center.
Gasser was the perfect complement to Taylor, as the freshmen finished with 10 points in 33 minutes, his third double-digit performance in the last five games.
"He's always in the thick of things," said Leuer. "He just makes winning plays. Regardless if he is scoring or not, he does stuff that helps out a lot more than just the box score shows."
Northwestern shot 77.8 percent (7 of 9) from three in the first half, but could not contain Taylor in the waning minutes of the first half.
After Thompson hit a 3-pointer, chipping the Badgers lead down to 7 with 2:32 remaining, Taylor had a hand in the next eight points, driving the lane and kicking to Gasser and Tim Jarmusz for 3-point jumpers and finding a driving Mike Bruesewitz for a layup, giving Wisconsin a 13-point halftime cushion.
If there was any question of how badly Wisconsin's six seniors wanted to close out their home career, the first three minutes was the perfect snapshot, as Leuer and Keaton Nankivil both hit jumpers and Tim Jarmusz hit a 3-pointer in between to put UW 9-0 run to start the game.
Even walk-on Wquinton Smith got into the act, hitting his first 3-pointer of the season to help the Badgers shot 65.4 percent from the floor and had a 1.59 points per possession average in the first half.
Every senior eventually got his moment in the spotlight. With the Badgers up 14 with 35 seconds left, J.P. Gavinski, Smith and Valentyn came in to allow Jarmusz, Leuer and Nankivil to come out to a standing ovation. Seconds later, the Badgers' three walk-on seniors got the same treatment.
But for a group that has played on the winningest team in school history, won a regular season and tournament championship and made a Sweet 16, the group knows there is still work to do.