Twice earlier this conference season with a healthy Jon Leuer saddled with foul trouble, the Badgers not only held serve without their dominant post presence, but increase their lead to insurmountable proportions.
This time appeared to be different, seeing as Leuer was Wisconsin's lone dominant post producer in the opening half, scoring all 12 of his points from inside the arc. When the dust settled, it was all a ploy, as the Badgers' depth was too much for another Big Ten opponent.
Despite foul trouble and sporadic work from Leuer and senior Trevon Hughes in the second half, No.15 Wisconsin avenged its only home loss of the season by getting 20 points from Leuer and sophomore Jordan Taylor, not to mention the first career double-double from Hughes, in a 72-57 season-ending victory over Illinois in Assembly Hall.
Wisconsin (23-7, 13-5 Big Ten), who clinched the fourth seed due to Michigan State's lopsided victory over Michigan, will play Illinois (18-13, 10-8) again on Friday in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament at approximately 1:30 p.m. The match-up has to have the Badgers licking their chops, especially with how the engine is starting to click in rhythm.
"We feel like we are playing good basketball right now, and we still feel like we have room for us to improve," senior Jason Bohannon said. "Each day we step on the floor, we're going to improve in some aspect. Coach takes that mindset and we take that mindset. When you have both parties doing that, you're going to be very good."
With Hughes in foul trouble for most of the second frame, Taylor locked down the point guard position; scoring 12 points down the stretch that included a key bucket with the shot clock ready to expire that put the Badgers up 10 with under 3 minutes, 29 seconds remaining.
The success was twofold, as Taylor also limited Illinois leading scorer Demetri McCamey to only one second half field goal, forcing junior Mike Tisdale (team-high 16 points) to carry the offense. After scoring 27 points in the team's first meeting, McCamey was held to 11 points on just 2-of-8 shooting.
"We have guys step up when other guys go out," Taylor said. "Jon and Trevon still had great games. They still put that part in, and it was still a team effort, but you try to step up and the ball came to my hands more when Trevon was out."
Leuer, who was sidelined in the team's first match-up due to a broken bone in his left wrist, was careless on a couple fouls that bought him a seat on the bench, but made up for it with his work in the block. Leuer's size freed up second-chance opportunities for his teammates, as the Badgers got five offensive rebounds on their first nine possessions and 17 overall.
At the finish, Wisconsin out scored Illinois 24-8 in the paint, 16-11 on second-chance points and out-rebounded the home team 40-30.
"We tried to pull every motivational thing out in our bag of tricks and we didn't play up to the level we needed to," Illinois Coach Bruce Weber said. "The difference in the game was offensive rebounds … and Leuer probably."
Don't forget about Hughes, who struggled with his shot (4-of-12) but managed to score 14 points (11 in the second half) that went along with 11 rebounds (7 offensive) and no turnovers.
"Anytime he is able to get that many offensive rebounds and give us that many more shots at the basket is good," Bohannon said. "You never see that from a point guard, and to get that from a different spot is good for us."
The Badgers needed every bit of it after a 10-point lead early in the second half started slipping away due to foul trouble. In a 48 second span, both Leuer and Hughes picked up their third foul, forcing the Badgers' two-leading scorers to take a seat on the bench barely two minutes into the second half.
Leuer and Hughes both returned at 15:56 but Ryan was put in a quandary when he had to sit Leuer after he picked up his fourth foul at 13:43 and Hughes when he was whistled for his at 10:39, with Wisconsin having its biggest lead of the game at 16 points at the time.
That's when the wheels started to wiggle off the axle. Wisconsin's defense held Illinois without a field goal for a 9 minute, 30 second stretch in the second half, but the Fighting Illini went on a 12-1 run in large part to hitting their free throws, closing the game to 55-50 with seven minutes left.
"There was a little stretch right there where we were fouling a lot and they were getting to the line," said Bohannon. "They were hitting free throws with the clock stopped. For us, we needed to find someway to turn it back in our favor."
Although Ryan put Hughes and Leuer back in the lineup to stop the bleeding, that boost Bohannon was looking for came courtesy of his quick awareness.
After a Nankivil bucket ended a 5:50 scoring drought for the Badgers, pushing the lead back to seven, Bohannon poked the ball away from a driving McCamey to Taylor, who had a clear path to the basket. Out of necessity and frustration, McCamey grabbed Taylor with both arms and took him to the court, initiating an intentional foul.
When the possession ended for the Badgers, the lead was up to nine.
"Sooner or later against a good team, they are going to grab the game, and that's what they did" said Weber, "They got into foul trouble, which they never seem to do, and we couldn't take advantage of it."
Wisconsin couldn't feel real safe until a gutsy play was made after Hughes twisted his right ankle after tracking down a loose ball into the back court with less than four minutes left. Hughes still managed to track down the ball, and dribble up court, which transitioned into Taylor making a jumper from the left block with one second left on the shot clock, increasing the lead to 62-52 with 3:31 remaining.
After making 52.4 percent (11-of-24) from the floor in the second half of the two team's last meeting, Illinois could only manage five makes the floor, as Wisconsin closed the game on a 10-2 run, further flexing its muscles that this team is tournament ready.
"We really feel like we getting in stride, feel like we are playing well and we just need to keep getting better," Taylor said. "We did to bring our game, try to get better and play sound from here on out because now it's one and done."