With the country watching for the second week in a row, Brian Butch introduced himself, Alando Tucker again lived up to his billing and Kammron Taylor appeared in time for a curtain call. Wisconsin, it seems, is ready to give its best performances in its biggest games.
The No. 7 Badgers' 89-75 victory over No. 2 Pittsburgh (10-1) at the Kohl Center on Saturday was hyped up from the get-go. Two top-ten teams who have begun to get to know each other – each featuring their conference's preseason player of the year – matched disciplined coaches and recent traditions amongst the best in the nation.
The Panthers entered Madison with the nation's fourth-best winning percentage since Bo Ryan took over the program that features the fifth-best home win percentage during that span. Pitt had won 21 consecutive non-conference games, ten straight against the Big Ten and was 44-0 under Jamie Dixon during November and December.
Luckily for Wisconsin (11-1), Tucker and company is thriving with the heat turned up.
"As competitors you ask for this," Tucker said. "If you want to prove that you belong amongst the elite groups, the elite teams, you have to play other elite teams and you have to beat them.
"We have to earn everything we get. And that's what I like. I like earning everything we get."
Tucker got the Badgers off on the right foot by scoring six of the first eight points of the game. UW opened up a 10-0 run but Pittsburgh quickly responded. Both teams matched a high percentage on tough shots until Wisconsin began to open up a lead late in the first half behind the scoring heroics of Tucker and Butch.
After Pitt took its final lead of the game at 28-27 with 5:51 remaining, the Badger offense ran on all cylinders during an 18-7 streak. It was part of a stretch in which UW scored on 11 of 12 possessions.
The highlights included what is becoming something of a ritual as Tucker nailed home a gravity-defying alleyoop. This one came on a two-on-one fast break in which Taylor pulled up just outside the left block and sailed it over the rim for Tucker on the far side. He came down with both hands over a trailing Levon Kendall and completed a three-point play to make it 40-34.
Asked whether he could rate this slam amongst his season's best, Tucker, who finished with a season-high 32 points, smiled. "I can't rate it because I'm actually doing it. I'm always seeing the rim so it's nothing different for me.
"Kam set me up perfect."
The real hero of that run, however, was Butch. The junior from Appleton put together the greatest stretch of his career in ratting off 12 points in less than five minutes. By the time Butch connected on his second 3-pointer, he seemed to will it in over a breaking Aaron Gray. He was left without enough to even continue pumping up the crowd with his arms.
"He'll make those shots in practice," Ryan said of Butch, who finished with a career-high 27 points on 8-of-11 shooting. "He practices those in order to use them in a game. And this time he put on a display where he kind of used all of them in one game. We'll take it."
Butch and Tucker each went into the break with 20 points as UW held a 47-37 lead. Sixth-man Ronald Ramon helped keep Pitt in it with his 11 points off of 3-for-4 shooting from beyond the arc.
That advantage never dipped below nine in the second half, as a barrage of free throw attempts and a balanced team effort kept Pittsburgh at bay.
Tucker and Butch went to the bench with 16:16 remaining, but Taylor picked up the slack in their absence. After going 0-for-4 in the first half, the veteran guard followed up his own long rebound and drove hard to the hoop, converting on a three-point play after a layup.
Taylor scored nine straight points for the Badgers to stretch the advantage to 63-49. He finished with 14 on the afternoon.
"Things started to fall," Taylor said. "I was a little frustrated out there, and I had to let some of that emotion out.
"Tuck and Butch, they carried us a lot of the game and when they went to the bench, somebody had to step up."
From there on out, Pittsburgh repeatedly sent UW to the free throw line as it attempted to play catch-up. Wisconsin shot 33 second-half free throws to finish 31-of-44 for the game. The Badgers had not attempted 40 free throws in over three years.
Wisconsin also owned the boards on Saturday, outrebounding Pitt 41-31. Butch finished with 11 – a season-high for any Badger – while Tucker joined him with his own double-double, hauling in ten.
"Simply put, we can't get beat on the boards," Dixon said. "The bottom line – throughout the game they outrebounded us all the way through."
The talk going into the game was how UW would set the tone under that glass, particularly concerning All-American candidate Gray, who was playing with the flu but managed 17 points and eight rebounds.
It may have been the trio that provided the points, but Landry added some key defensive stops and Krabbenhoft nabbed three offensive rebounds in his 17 minutes. Ryan limited the minutes on his bench a bit more than usual, but nearly every move seemed to pay off.
"We've got a bunch of key players on this team," Butch said. "We're very deep. That's huge for us."
Taylor had butterflies in his stomach due to the atmosphere, but with all the hype and attention put on this game from outsiders, his team did not buckle – neither from the start, nor with the lead.
"The way they kind of manhandled us last year, I think that really played a role in one of the reasons they beat us."
"We were just being aggressive and we didn't back down from anybody."
Ryan seconded the physical assessment, asking reporters if they would have liked to officiate the game, with 49 fouls called.
"It's two lunch pail teams," Ryan said. "I don't think they're going to ‘wow' anybody. I don't think we're going to ‘wow' anybody."
But they might have done just that.