Leuer is still working on shedding the rust that coated his game while rehabilitating his wrist and stuck to his shot in a loss Thursday at Minnesota but playing in only his second game back, the presence he is bringing is already making a huge difference.
"It's very nice having a big that is long that can go up and block shots," senior Jason Bohannon said. "If you get beat off the dribble, which coach doesn't want to happen but if we do have that happen, we have some type of recovery like that."
"I am feeling pretty good, as far as my second game back," Leuer said. "I still feel I have a long way to go. Everyday, I am trying to get better and get in more of a rhythm with this team."
The win gives Wisconsin (20-7, 10-5 Big Ten) its seventh 20-win season under Head Coach Bo Ryan, and ninth in the past 12 seasons, a fitting tribute seeing as Dick Bennett and the 2000 Final Four team that were honored at halftime, the first team to make 20 wins a standard benchmark.
It's also important in terms of keeping Wisconsin's slim conference title hopes alive, as the Badgers move into sole possession of fourth place. It was also fitting seeing as just like the surprising run to Indianapolis 10 years ago, nothing came easy for the Badgers in making sure it remained the only Big Ten team to avoid consecutive losses this season.
In the last seven games played at the Kohl Center in the series, Wisconsin a perfect 7-0 record against the Wildcats, winning by an averaging of 19.7 points per game.
With a 14-point lead six minutes into the second half, the synopsis seemed to follow a similar path, especially after Wisconsin shot 71 percent in the opening half to build the 14-point cushion – its highest shooting percentage for a half this season and a vast turn around after shooting 30.5 percent in its loss to the Gophers.
"Anytime you have a 10-point lead, you want to push it to 15, 20 and so on," Bohannon said.
But playing against a squad hoping to set a program record for wins and make the national tournament for the first time, Northwestern (17-10, 6-9) made its push, with sophomore John Shurna being the catalyst. After scoring 11 in the first half, Shurna scored 15 points down the stretch to help the Wildcats cut the lead to one twice on two separate occasions in the final 3:06.
"Shurna did a nice job," Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody said. "He just put his head down a couple of times, got right to the basket and finished, almost the whole second half."
That ‘almost' happened fortunately for Wisconsin down the stretch, as Northwestern was held without a field goal after junior Michael Thompson driving layup cut the lead to 62-61 with 3:06 remaining.
That's not to say Shurna and the Wildcats didn't have a couple of good looks. Driving around junior Tim Jarmusz at the wing, Shurna wasn't able to convert the open lay in causing Northwestern's Luka Mirkovic to foul Leuer on a battle for the rebound.
With Wisconsin leading 65-63, Shurna had a wide-open look to tie after creating separation by accidentally elbowed senior Trevon Hughes in the chest. Hughes went down to the ground, but Shurna's shot was too strong off the glass.
"The one John skimmed off the backboard, there was probably a charge on his fault, but they didn't call anything there," Carmody said. "He was so open that he missed it."
Leuer grabbed one of his four rebounds, and was a big piece in Wisconsin holding Northwestern to only four offensive and 16 total rebounds (the fewest by an opponent this season).
"There's the experience we get back on the floor in those situations," Ryan said. "That's why he was out there. Even with that tape on his hand, his hands are the best of our bigs. His activity inside, defensively and offensively, was a big factor down the stretch."
The Badgers couldn't fully pull away by going 2-of-6 on free throws for a stretch, but continued to get solid defense from Leuer, including a block by Leuer with 11 seconds left on a drive by Michael Thompson.
"The block was just trying to make up for all those free throws I missed," Leuer said. "I don't know what I was thinking there, but I just felt I had to make a play."
From there, Bohannon and Hughes each knocked down a pair of free throws to seal the game.
"Thankfully, we had enough to pull them aside," Bohannon said.
Guard Jordan Taylor shrugged off a 1-for-8 shooting performance against home-state Minnesota on Thursday by making his four shots and scored 14 points in the opening half, but committed three second-half turnovers and finished with 16 points.
Hughes finished with 13 points and five rebounds and Leuer, playing in his second game since returning from a broken bone in his left wrist, looked more comfortable in the offense, finishing with 11 points.
"The more experience you get and the more games you get under your belt, I think the easier it becomes, anytime you play," Leuer said. "I am just taking it day by day right now and just trying to keep improving and get better to help this team."
Bohannon scored a team-high 17 points (his sixth straight game scoring at least 15), but it was his two plays that made a big difference in ending the first half on a 12-2. With the shot clock winding down, Bohannon dribble-drove through three defenders and bounced in a layup, starting the run at 33-27.
Two possessions later, Bohannon knocked the ball away from Michael Thompson to lead the fast break. Instead of driving, Bohannon stopped and drilled a three-pointer from the left wing, putting the lead to 11.
"His experience was huge," Ryan said of Bohannon.
Bohannon was just as active in the second half, helping the Badgers to avoid the upset. After Hughes lost the ball after a slip, one of UW's six second-half turnovers, Bohannon's high-flying acrobatics broke up an alley-oop dunk attempt.
Two possessions later, after Northwestern cut the lead to three, Bohannon registered the Badgers only bucket in the final 11 minutes, hitting a three from the wing off an assist from Taylor that gave UW some breathing room.