The Badgers know they wouldn’t be the same without both.
Taylor scored 22 points and Leuer added 16 to lead Wisconsin to a 68-60 victory over No. 14 Minnesota on Tuesday night in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
“It’s fun to play against Minnesota. I’m not going to lie, but we try to do that against every team,” Taylor said. “They’ve got good guards, they’ve got good bigs. I don’t think they’re going to go into their locker room regretting that they don’t have me and Jon.”
Don’t tell that to Taylor’s teammates.
“That’s what we expect out of him, to be a leader and take care of the ball and make his teammates better, and he does all that night in and night out,” Leuer said.
Once again, the two stars played key roles in Wisconsin’s eighth straight win in a conference opener.
“I reminded the guys we’ve got 17 more left,” Ryan said.
Too bad they aren’t all at the Kohl Center, where Wisconsin (11-2) is 70-6 against Big Ten opponents under Ryan.
Minnesota (11-2) took the lead on Trevor Mbakwe’s dunk with just under 7 minutes to play, but Wisconsin answered with two 3-pointers and Taylor and Leuer hit all seven free throws in the final 1:12 to seal the win.
Mbakwe finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds and Ralph Sampson III had 14 points, including the Gophers’ final six, before fouling out.
Trailing by double digits early in the second half, Mbakwe changed the momentum as the Gophers chipped away at Wisconsin’s lead. His basket cut it to 50-48 and then a slam gave Minnesota a 54-53 advantage with 6:55 left, the Gophers’ first lead in more than 19 minutes.
“We felt good. Not taking anything away from Wisconsin, but we felt like we kind of shot ourselves in the foot,” Mbakwe said.
Keaton Nankivil and Taylor hit three-pointers on trips around a basket by Sampson to put Wisconsin ahead 59-56 before both teams went cold with four straight misses on each end.
Sampson hit two of four free throws to cut it to 59-58, but Taylor forced him to switch to him on defense, drove to the basket and converted a three-point play that put Wisconsin ahead by four with 1:12 left.
“Jordan Taylor took advantage of whenever we switched,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “He did some good things there and they made some clutch shots.”
Sampson answered with a jumper to make it 62-60 with 53 seconds to go, but that was it.
Taylor missed a three, but Leuer grabbed an offensive rebound, forcing the Gophers to foul, and the two hit six more free throws for the final margin. Wisconsin finished 17 of 18 from the line.
“The biggest play of the game was Jon’s offensive rebound. We were up two and that rebound allows us to get the ball and shoot free throws for the rest of the way out,” Taylor said.
Minnesota never had a chance late to take the lead despite outrebounding the Badgers 42-24.
This is the only matchup between the border rivals this year, and the Badgers snapped a three-game losing streak in this series after committing two turnovers for the game, the fewest in a Division I game this season.
Minnesota is one of only three Big Ten opponents to win at the Kohl Center against Ryan after an overtime victory the last time they were here, but the Gophers couldn’t repeat the feat.
The student section had plenty of empty seats because of holiday break and many more fans are in California for the Rose Bowl in four days. That gave some plucky Gophers’ fans prime seats in the first three rows of the student section and there was plenty of contrasting gold throughout the arena.
Leuer hit a three-pointer to give him 1,000 career points in the first half, and Wisconsin pushed the lead to 40-30 early in the second off another 3 by Leuer and a jumper in the lane by Taylor before Minnesota rallied.
“They were playing at home, they don’t have many turnovers, they’re a very smart team, and we just missed some key free throws and box-out opportunities at the end of the game that really cost us,” Mbakwe said.