With Tucker and Taylor leading the way, the sixth seeded Badgers matched top seeded North Carolina's skill and athleticism for much of Sunday's 88-82 loss in an NCAA Regional final here. The Tar Heels had few answers for Tucker's clever moves around the basket or Taylor's nimble dribble drives down the lane.
"They played fantastic," senior forward Mike Wilkinson said. "Knocking down big shots, playing good defense. They were doing lots of things just to help the team."
Wisconsin's super sophomores combined for 43 points. Tucker, a 6-foot-5 forward, led the Badgers with 25 points in 33 minutes. Taylor, a 6-2 guard who played 28 minutes off the bench, posted 18 points and held up okay defensively, despite often being matched with UNC's star point guard, Raymond Felton.
Seven months from now, UW will open practice for the 2005-06 season, needing to replace five seniors, including four starters. It will be the second consecutive season that the Badgers will enter a new campaign with only one returning starter.
This season, UW overcame that challenge, reached the Elite Eight and tied a school record set just last season with 25 wins.
"We definitely are going to be a team to be reckoned with come next year," Taylor said. "The guys are going to be really ready to work this summer so we can be right here at this point or go further."
In Tucker, UW's returning starter is a star in the making. In Taylor, the Badgers' have a lightning quick point guard of the future.
"The guys really have grown and learned a lot and been a part of a lot," Wilkinson said. "Now it is just continuing to play at this level and continuing to grow and get better and become the players they are capable of becoming."
Sunday, despite facing persistent double and triple teams when he cut to the lane, Tucker weaved his way to the basket, with a collection of shot fakes and step through moves setting up his soft touch around the hoop. He made 9 of 17 attempts (including an 0 of 4 from 3-point range) and hit 7 of 9 free throws.
"He proved today on a national stage that he is one of the best players in the country," senior forward Zach Morley said. "They tried different guys on him but every time he was able to be successful."
Tucker provided an exclamation point for his day with 1:38 left to play, leaping from the right block to accept a Sharif Chambliss pass well above the rim and emphatically finishing the alley-oop with a backboard shaking dunk.
It was the kind of play the Tucker circa 2002-03 — the human highlight reel freshman — made with seeming regularity, before a pair of foot injuries robbed him of the 2003-04 season. Sunday, as he has throughout this season, however, he blended that aggression with patience of a tried and true veteran, picking his spots to attack UNC's defense.
"That's the Alando of new," Wilkinson said. "He's so much smarter than he was before [the injuries]… He's just become so much of a better player now that he's 100 percent healthy and is so much smarter and knows the game that much better."
Tucker earned the respect of UNC's players, who after the game expressed admiration for his varied skills and his willingness to blend into UW's team concept.
Said Wilkinson: "As long as he continues to play hard and he continues to play smart and he never gives up, I told him he can do anything he wants. But it's all up to him."
After playing all of 41 minutes his true freshman season, Taylor developed to the point this year where in the biggest game of the season UW's offense ran through him down the stretch.
"I thought Kam did a good job too of handling the pressure because they were hounding us all day," senior guard Clayton Hanson said. Taylor had two turnovers and one assist.
Taylor scored UW's last seven points, including a clutch 3 to draw the Badgers within 81-78 with 56 seconds left.
"I think it shows the guys believe in me to have the ball when it's crunch time to make the right decisions," Taylor said. "It just shows that they trust me."
Taylor, though, rushed a 3-pointer with 43 seconds left and UW down five. Two Raymond Felton free throws effectively iced it for UNC.
"I'm going to take this loss and learn from it and get ready for next year," Taylor said.