After dominating the game early, the Badgers fell behind in the second half. The Badgers were down 59-58 with two minutes left when their star forward Alando Tucker stepped to the line with a chance to make two free throws and give UW the lead back. But Tucker, bothered by the custom plastic shield he has worn to protect his face since a late November injury, missed both free throws.
Minnesota called a timeout and the frustrated Tucker ripped off his mask before returning to the floor. The Badgers then clamped down defensively, giving Tucker a chance to redeem himself.
Tucker was determined to score. He turned to face the basket, leapt over three Gophers and, in typical Tucker fashion, banked a field goal in off the glass.
The Badgers players and coaches describe Tucker as a playmaker—that illustration fit perfectly Tuesday night.
A year ago, UW's trip to Williams Arena here ended with a 10-point loss because the Badgers could not find anyone to stop Gopher star Vincent Grier, who scored 32 points that day.
Tuesday, however, Grier was well defended by the Badgers, primarily freshman reserve Joe Krabbenhoft.
But when the Gophers had the chance to tie the game in the final seconds following Tucker's mask-free miracle shot, UW coach Bo Ryan made a quick decision to alter his defense during a timeout.
Ryan let Tucker guard Grier during the Gophers' most important possession of the night. Tucker succeeded, forcing Grier to miss a 3-point attempt that would have tied the game. The Badgers went on to win by two points.
"I asked (Tucker) if he wanted (Grier)," Ryan said. "I looked at Joe and said, ‘Joe you're doing a great job on him, they're going to look to go to Grier here probably these last couple possessions—Lando do you want him?' ‘Yeah I want him.' (Alando told me)," Ryan said.
Gopher fans were eager for something to cheer about after coming off an embarrassing home loss to Northwestern three days prior. But the home crowd was left speechless as the Gophers went nearly 16 minutes without a field goal during a first-half stretch, allowing the Badgers to methodically build a commanding lead. The Badgers appeared in total control when 6-foot-11 sophomore forward Brian Butch drained a 3 and the Badgers went up 25-6 with about four minutes left in the first half, their biggest lead of the night.
That possession was just one of many in the first half where Wisconsin's big men had good looks at the basket from the perimeter. Butch and teammate Greg Stiemsma were both left unguarded as the Badgers utilized their smaller players in the post. Defensively, the Badgers never looked better as they held the Gophers to a miserable 1 of 18 from the field in the first 15 minutes of play.
"We were on a roll defensively. We felt comfortable with our positioning, our movement," Ryan said.
Tucker finished the night leading his team with 22 points and 10 rebounds and shot an admirable 11 of 23 from the field. Most of that production came in the second half when the game was on the line. He shot 9 of 12 after halftime.
Wisconsin had a seemingly comfortable lead over the Gophers—until Minnesota began to hit some shots, and was able to employ its hard-to-handle full-court press.
Minnesota quickly forced a wave of Badger turnovers in the final minutes of the first half. The Gophers successfully trapped the Badgers on consecutive plays and went on an 11-0 run before heading into the locker room. The Gophers' aggressive defense set up Rico Tucker to drain a wide-open 3 with 35 seconds remaining in the first half, cutting the UW lead to 25-17 at halftime.
Despite shooting a dismal 3 of 24 (13 percent), the Gophers had managed to stay within eight points at halftime and the fans in "the Barn" could smell their chance at a comeback. Just before halftime the floorboards began to rumble and the Badgers noticeably felt the effect of the raucous crowd for the first time.
Out of the gates in the second half, the Gophers kept their momentum and used tremendous pressure to quicken the pace of the game, never allowing the Badgers to get comfortable on offense like they did in the first half. The Gophers collected 15 steals before the night was over and forced Wisconsin to give up a season-worst 22 turnovers.
The Badgers had a 14-point lead in the second half that was quickly erased as they gave up eight turnovers in just over five minutes of play. The worst of them came when Grier stole the ball from Badger freshman Marcus Landry and ran the court for an easy jumper. On the next play, Grier again made Landry pay for making a lazy pass in the paint. That steal led to an open 3-pointer from guard Adam Boone to make it a one-possession game. Landry took to the bench and did not return for the remainder of the game.
The Badgers suffered through multiple second-half stretches where they turned the ball over on consecutive possessions.
Minnesota capitalized. Guard Maurice Hargrow's dunk gave the Gophers a 48-46 lead as the crowd erupted. Grier led the Gophers with 11 rebounds as he and teammate Rico Tucker scored 17 points each against the Badgers.
But the Gophers could never pull away. In the final five minutes of the game the Badgers finally began to take care of the ball. Wisconsin did not have a single turnover during those closing minutes.
"In the last five-and-a-half minutes we handled it very well and that's all you can say," Ryan said.
The Badgers maintain their top position in the Big Ten with a 3-0 conference record and a 13-2 overall mark. Minnesota falls to 0-2 and 9-4.
After winning three games in six days the Badgers now wait until Saturday to host Northwestern at the Kohl Center in Madison.