So This Is The New Year

The Badgers showed poise and experience in closing out their non-conference schedule on a high-note.

ATHENS, Ga. – What a difference a year makes.

Close your eyes and flashback quickly to New Year's Eve in Pittsburgh 365 days ago.

Now welcome back to this year's Badger party. Needless to say, the ball dropped differently, so to speak.

This time the No. 4 Badgers (14-1) closed out a tough 64-54 victory in the waning minutes at Georgia on Sunday afternoon, as opposed to their ten-point loss a year ago to the Panthers.

One variable remained the same, however. And when Jason Bohannon was fouled pulling down a defensive board late in the second half Sunday, a rabid Bulldog fan spelled it out for everyone:

"This ain't no ballerina contest," he spewed at the refs. "It's basketball!"

And physical basketball at that. Wisconsin could have backed down on a number of occasions. It turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, but responded with just three following the break. Takais Brown pulled down 10 rebounds on the Badgers in the first half, but was contained to three after that.

Most importantly, when a physical and quick Georgia team made its runs down the stretch and threatened to re-take the lead, the Badgers always found a way to respond.

"This probably isn't a game we pull out last year," said senior Kammron Taylor. "Because, you know, we had a young team last year. We didn't have that experience. We didn't have that maturity. This year we've got that senior leadership."

Everyone compared Sunday's game with the one at Pittsburgh a year ago, and contrasted the outcomes as well. Wisconsin has not been one to back down at any point through its non-conference schedule. But in terms of playing a true road game with all its burdens of long travel against a quality opponent in a rough-and-tumble type of game, this was a significant step.

At the South Padre Invitational in November, Wisconsin faced a similar challenge on a neutral court against Missouri State. The Badgers took the lead in the second half as they did Sunday, but lost it down the stretch after a string of turnovers and missed shots.

That did not happen against the Bulldogs. Even when the jump shots were not falling, Wisconsin minimized its mistakes and made intelligent decisions.

Joe Krabbenhoft ripped a rebound right out of Brown's hands on the defensive end with just less than four minutes remaining. He also made two incredibly smart passes – one to Alando Tucker on the baseline, and the other to Taylor for 3 – that came at big times.

Marcus Landry entered the game with 2:33 remaining after Brian Butch picked up his fourth foul. Bo Ryan called it a gut decision to insert Landry in the tight spot, and the sophomore responded by hitting all five of his free throw attempts in crunch time, as well as a dunk that all but sealed the victory.

And of course there was Tucker – whose 3-pointer from the corner made it 56-52 and truly spelled the beginning of the end for the Bulldogs. Tucker, who led all scorers with 29, has become a player whose perimeter shot seems to improve in clutch situations.

His baseline connection was pure and lined up dead on. He looked almost as if there were an extra inch in his famous vertical and a further reach in his follow through. While he did not attest to a difference in technique, Tucker has noted the trend.

"It seems like when I'm making most of my threes it's when games are close, games are tough and we're needing baskets," he said.

This one provided yet another chapter in the impressive Tucker anthology. Feel free to insert the "how are your shoulders feeling?" quip here.

"I always want to be able to put the game on my back," Tucker said. "It comes from wanting to be this kind of player my entire life."

But as easy as it would be to pin this all on Tucker, he played well at Pitt last year also, and it wasn't enough. Ryan said after the game that both New Year's contests helped his team, but that in a non-conference campaign like this one, when a few bounces can make a team 14-1 rather than, say 9-5, there is a reason for success.

"What is the cutoff?" Ryan said. "What makes the difference? Usually it's guys who improve under pressure, who continue to work hard even when sometimes things aren't going well, and just keep fighting through it. And that's exactly what these guys did – as a team."

As Ryan pointed out, if Wisconsin had turned the ball over 11 times in the second half as opposed to the first, perhaps they would be on the losing side. Had they not controlled Brown better as the game went on, or hit clutch free throws, or made sure that the shots they did get were good ones, perhaps they would be traveling home upset.

But in a trying situation that may not have been pretty, it was good enough. And for a Badger team on the road, good enough has not always been the outcome.

"I remember this is similar to the Pittsburgh game last year," Tucker said. "We were on the road. Pittsburgh was physical. We didn't respond well.

"This game just shows – I've been saying this the whole year – this is a totally different Wisconsin basketball."


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