MILWAUKEE -- They're not sexy, and they aren't going to wow you. They've never been known as one of the more athletic teams in the nation either.
But the Badgers are big, strong and aggressive, and that made the difference as Wisconsin held off Marquette, 69-64, in a hard-fought battle Saturday at the Bradley Center.
Just minutes into the second half, senior forward Jon Leuer picked up two quick fouls, giving him three for the game and sending him to the bench. After Darius Johnson-Odom connected on two free throws, Wisconsin led by a slim 36-34 margin with its leading scorer watching from the sideline.
While the situation did not look promising for UW, not only did the Badgers not struggle without their star, they actually extended the lead to as much as 48-39 over the next six minutes.
"That was big," Leuer said. "It's frustrating when you get in foul trouble because you want to be out there helping the team, but
they all stepped up, and that was fun. I was a cheerleader there on the sideline for a little bit. It was fun to see those guys step up and produce for us."
Playing without Leuer is nothing new for the Badgers, of course. Last year, the 6-foot-10 forward missed a significant portion of the Big Ten schedule due to injury, and Wisconsin stayed afloat without him.
Leuer's fellow senior forward, Madison native Keaton Nankivil was particularly impressive as Leuer sat on the bench. Nankivil scored Wisconsin's first six points following Leuer's third foul, while grabbing a pair of rebounds over the same stretch.
Nankivil saw the opportunity presented by Leuer's absence, and took full advantage when his team needed it most.
"That's something we work on all the time is taking advantage of opportunities," Nankivil said. "I think when Jon went out, they might have focused on putting that pressure on a little bit harder. A couple of the possessions, we were in shot clock situations, they were looking to pressure our guards and maybe run and jump.
"Two of the plays were off hand offs that I decided to keep when they might've been looking to pressure our guards and we've just got to step on them."
Squaring off with their in-state rivals Saturday, the Badgers used their superior size and strength and translated it into dominance on the boards, especially on the offensive end.
Wisconsin outrebounded Marquette 32-28 overall, including a 15-10 edge in offensive rebounds. While MU did post an 18-17 advantage on the defensive boards, the home team only grabbed three more rebounds on UW misses than the Badgers did themselves.
As a result, Wisconsin dominated in second-chance points with a 21-9 margin.
"The idea is either you can put it right back after a pump fake or you get it out and we make them work again," UW head coach Bo Ryan said. "Plus, we know what it does mentally to the other team."
Sophomore Mike Bruesewitz was particularly impressive on both the offensive and defensive glass, grabbing four rebounds on each end for a total of eight for the game. Nankivil also pulled down five rebounds (two offensive), while Leuer had six, four of which came on the offensive end.
The best example of the Badgers' dominance on the boards came during a stretch in the final seven minutes of the game. Following a missed jumper by Marquette, Leuer grabbed the defensive board with 6:34 to go in the second half.
On the other end, Rob Wilson missed a jumper 24 seconds later before grabbing his own offensive rebound. Twenty-three seconds later, Leuer missed a jumper and Ryan Evans cleaned up the offensive glass.
After another 23 seconds ran off the clock, Jimmy Butler was called for two fouls in six seconds. Leuer finally ended the possession with 5:12 remaining, hitting a jumper on an assist from Bruesewitz.
Down the stretch, however, Marquette cut the lead and made things interesting. While the Badgers continued to rebound well, one of their usual strengths -- free throw shooting -- betrayed them.
With 44 seconds remaining, Wilson missed one of two free throws, leaving it at a seven-point game. Following two points on the other end, Jordan Taylor missed a free throw of his own, giving Marquette the ball back down six with 32 seconds to go.
Taylor would shoot six more free throws over the final 20 seconds, though, hitting five of them to seal the road victory.
"I was disappointed I missed the first one," Taylor said. "So I just wanted to kind of get up there and knock the next two down really put it away."
Leading by one point with 1:13 to go at UNLV, the Badgers failed to score again before ultimately losing by a three-point margin. In Orlando against Notre Dame, the game was tied with 2:01 remaining before Wisconsin lost by seven points.
Apparently the third time is the charm for Wisconsin in tight road games, as the Badgers managed to hold off a late rally by their in-state rivals.
"They weren't frazzled," Ryan said. "The great advantage is we played in Vegas, in a possession-per-possession game. That's how we walk away with this win today."
Not only did the Badgers get a road win, they added what certainly should be a resume win down the line. Come tournament time, a win on the road against a Big East opponent like Marquette should carry plenty of weight.
Count MU head coach Buzz Williams among those impressed by Wisconsin.
"It's the best team they've had since I've been here," Williams said. "I don't think the world knows it now, but they will."
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