Kammron Taylor hit Mercer with the left, and Alando Tucker countered with the right as Wisconsin's two Wooden Award Watch List nominees each led the charge in respective halves of a 72-48 opening season victory over Mercer University in the Kohl Center on Sunday.
The Badgers trailed Mercer 10-9 early on, but then proceeded to reel off a 15-4 run over a span of 5:37 to open up a double digit lead that never fell below seven en route to the win.
Taylor scored 10 of his game-high 22 points during that span, connecting from beyond the arc with a hand in his face to make it 24-14 with 8:33 to play in the half.
"I'm really impressed with [Taylor]," said Mercer coach Marc Slonaker. "For me, personally preparing for the game, the games I saw, I thought Taylor was their best player in a lot of ways. He brought so much energy to the game. He defends. He shot us out of that zone early."
Wisconsin took a 14-point lead into the locker room at halftime behind Taylor's 18 first-half points, including a perfect 4-for-4 run from 3-point range.
After the break it was Tucker who set the pace for UW as he mostly abandoned his long-range attempts and brought the ball to the paint. Two six-point scoring runs highlighted the half for Tucker and widened the Badger advantage.
The preseason Big Ten player of the year struggled with his shot in the first half, going 2 of 7 and missing all three 3-point shots he attempted. But he scored the Badgers' first six points after halftime by looking back inside, extending the UW lead from 12 to 18 on three consecutive possessions.
"One of the things we wanted to stay consistent with was attacking the glass – attacking the lane," Tucker said. "That's where I made a stronger effort in doing that. That's how you have to get your shot going when it's not falling."
Tucker added a second string of baskets late in the half, stretching the Badger lead from 18 to 24 after catching a pass in the paint from Taylor and laying it in to make it 70-46 with 3:02 remaining. He finished the evening with 21 points on 10-for-18 shooting in 30 minutes.
While Tucker and Taylor provided the one-two punch to knockout the Bears on Sunday, it was and will continue to be the contributions of their teammates who determine how the team as a whole can improve from a year ago.
As usual, sophomore Joe Krabbenhoft took a beating but came through huge for UW with his hustle, hauling in 10 rebounds to go with seven points and three assists.
"He's an enforcer," Tucker said of Krabbenhoft. "He's our enforcer. That's one of the things I can say about him. I know he'll take a punch. He'll take a punch for me. He'll take a punch for the 14 other guys, 15 other guys down the line on the team."
Krabbenhoft, Jason Bohannon and Marcus Landry saw the most action off the bench – all three of them logged between 19 and 20 minutes. Bohannon came in early for a long stint after Michael Flowers picked up two fouls and sat for the remainder of the half. But it was Krabbenhoft who provided the most complementary spark to the two UW stars.
"The lift today came from Krabbenhoft," said UW coach Bo Ryan. "If it comes from a different guy everyday, I don't care."
Krabbenhoft repeatedly emphasized that the team is still a "work in progress," as their poor free throw shooting and occasional second half turnovers point to. In particular, Ryan stressed that while Taylor played a good game, he made some ill-advised flip passes in the second half that led to turnovers. Those are the kinds of things Ryan has tried to get Taylor to abandon in an effort to improve on his assist-to-turnover ratio a year ago.
"I'll have to get the hypnotist working on him again," Ryan quipped.
Overall, most things went as to be expected. Ryan said he saw energy from his team, but not always the right execution. The Badgers did begin to see that out of Tucker as the game progressed, as he established himself to a greater extent than he had in a pair of exhibition games when he looked to get others involved.
"We couldn't stop Tucker in the second half to save our lives," Slonaker said.
For Tucker, it's nice just to finally get back to that competitive level again.
"It feels good," Tucker said. "We an actually put a mark in our win column. Whenever you can do that to start it off it's always good."
"It just feels good after the game to realize we've started back up and it's actually official now."