MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—After missing two free throws that would have given Wisconsin the lead with two minutes to play, Alando Tucker ripped off his protective mask and threw it to the ground.
Teammate Kammron Taylor knew the game was over right then and there.
“I knew he was mad,” Taylor said. “I knew he wanted this game. When that mask came off, I knew he didn’t care what happened.”
Tucker made the go-ahead layup a minute later and shut down Minnesota star Vincent Grier on the defensive end to lead No. 21 Wisconsin to a tense 64-62 victory on Tuesday night.
Tucker, who injured his nose against Wake Forest on Nov. 29, finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds as the Badgers capped an impressive start to the Big Ten season that includes victories over Iowa and Michigan State at home in a span of six days.
“I like it for these players who are working so hard, to take care of these three against NCAA tournament teams,” coach Bo Ryan said.
Brian Butch added 12 points and eight rebounds for the Badgers (13-2, 3-0), who led by 19 points in the first half and by 14 early in the second before nearly letting the game slip away.
Grier had 17 points and 11 rebounds and reserve Rico Tucker had 17 points and four steals for Minnesota (9-4, 0-2), which was badly in need of a quality win at home having already lost to Gardner-Webb and Northwestern at Williams Arena.
“I don’t know,” dejected Minnesota coach Dan Monson said as rubbed his temples. “It’s a bottom-line business and we didn’t get it done. We’re trying to get ourselves to play at the level we need to play at against the Wisconsins and those teams. … We’re behind these teams right now.”
The Badgers appeared on their way to an easy victory after taking a 25-6 lead over the first 17 minutes, but Minnesota’s fullcourt defense gave them fits after that, allowing the Gophers to scratch their way back into the game.
After turning the ball over 15 times combined in their first two conference games, Wisconsin committed a season-high 22 turnovers, leading to 28 Minnesota points.
In a second half filled with runs, the Badgers struck first with a 10-0 spurt that included a four-point play by Taylor and an alley-oop dunk by Tucker that gave them a 37-23 lead.
Minnesota responded with an 11-2 run on the strength of hard-nosed defense and a 3-pointer by Adam Boone that cut Wisconsin’s lead to 42-39.
Four minutes later, another 13-3 spurt by the Gophers gave them their first lead since 3-2, when Maurice Hargrow’s dunk made it 48-46, whipped the home crowd into a frenzy and set up a back-and-forth final 6 minutes.
“Stay poised,” Alando Tucker said he told his teammates. “We knew they were going to get up. We just figured if we stick together, keep running our offense and don’t get rattled, we could still come out with a win.”
Minnesota stretched the lead to 59-56 on a layup by J’Son Stamper, but Tucker responded with two layups in traffic and freshman Joe Krabbenhoft calmly hit two free throws to put the Badgers back in control.
Taylor hit two free throws to give the Badgers a five-point lead with 3 seconds left, making Tucker’s 3-pointer at the buzzer purely cosmetic.
“It means a lot to us, to come in on the road in a tough environment with a young team and to pull a close one out like that,” Taylor said. “That definitely helps our confidence.”
Both teams were dreadful offensively in the first half. Wisconsin shot 27 percent, but with the Gophers missing open shot after open shot, even that was enough to take a comfortable lead.
The Gophers made just one of their first 21 field goals and only hit three in the entire first half.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Grier, who slumped into a couch after playing all 40 minutes. “It’s hard right now.”
Minnesota scored five points in the first 10 minutes, as senior guards Boone, Grier and Hargrow combined to shoot 1-for-15, allowing Wisconsin to take a 19-point lead.
Hargrow finished with 12 points on 4-for-13 shooting and Grier was 6-of-18.
The Gophers have lost three games at home and head on the road for games at Purdue and Iowa.
“We’re 0-2 and we’re going on the road for two,” Monson said grimly. “We have to win some games.”