ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Backseat Badger? Not on this day.
All-America point guard Jordan Taylor deliberately diminished his offensive output during his senior season, knowing he had to nurture three new starting forwards if Wisconsin was to have any chance of another NCAA tournament run in March.
On Thursday, Taylor scored 17 points, pulled down eight rebounds, dished out six assists and committed no turnovers in masterfully directing the fourth-seeded Badgers’ 73-49 rout of Montana in the East Regional.
“I’m just coming out trying to do anything I can to help my team win,” Taylor said. “I felt like I got some open looks there, especially in the first half. It’s the same for me as it is for everybody else. If you get an open look, you’ve just got to step in and knock it down. Just be aggressive and play confident.”
Ryan Evans, one of the newcomers who benefited greatly from Taylor’s unselfish play and mentoring, led Wisconsin with 18 points and added eight boards to make up for five turnovers.
“I wanted to come out and play aggressive and loose. Not with the idea that I was going to have five turnovers, but kind of help relieve pressure from Jordan and the rest of them,” said Evans, who had 14 points in the first half as the fourth-seeded Badgers built a double-digit lead that the Grizzlies couldn’t erase.
The other two newcomers in the lineup that benefited from Taylor’s dial-it-down style early in the season also came up big. Mike Bruesewitz had eight points and four boards, and Jared Berggren blocked seven shots.
The Badgers (25-9) improved to 10-1 in NCAA tournament openers under Bo Ryan, the winningest coach in the program’s history.
Wisconsin will face Vanderbilt on Saturday. The Commodores (25-10) held off Harvard 79-70 Thursday.
Art Steward had 18 points for the Grizzles (25-7), who were familiar with the Badgers’ style because one of their assistants, Freddie Owens, played at Wisconsin from 2001-04. But his inside information couldn’t help the Grizzlies pull off the upset.
Montana was riding a school-record 14-game winning streak, having already established its best record in two decades. The team’s previous loss was Jan. 14 at Weber State, the same squad it wiped out by 19 in the Big Sky title game.
The 13th-seeded Grizzlies only held two leads against the bigger, badder Badgers — 2-0 and 5-2 on Derek Selvig’s 3-pointer, which was quickly matched by a 3 from Josh Gasser, who scored 12 points.
Evans averaged 10.9 points in the regular season and topped that in the first half when his 14 points helped the Badgers to a 39-29 halftime cushion.
Wisconsin, making its 14th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament, raced out to a 14-7 lead when Evans swished his first four shots, including a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
The Grizzlies made a charge in the second half when Mathias Ward sank two free throws and a 3-pointer and Will Cherry hit another 3 to cut Wisconsin’s 16-point lead to 48-38. But the Badgers called timeout and then outscored Montana 25-11 the rest of the way, never letting the Grizzlies push the pace like they wanted.
“They weren’t turning the ball over,” Cherry said. “We sped them up at times, but I felt like somehow they always kicked it to an open shooter who made a dagger 3, and put a little damper in our comeback.”
The Grizzles shot just 38 percent against the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense.
“We pride ourselves on creating doubt in the minds of our opponents, and I thought they really did a good job of that tonight,” Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said. “Our guys battled back. We made a nice little run there in the second half and they always had an answer, a lot of dagger plays there in the second half, so proud of my group. It’s been a heck of a year.”
The Badgers held Cherry, Montana’s leading scorer (16.0) and spark plug, to nine points on 3-of-14 shooting — and zero assists.
“We just made sure that we tried to run him off the 3-point line and tried to get some help to him and squeeze the court, make the driving lane smaller,” Ryan said.
Wisconsin had to replace three senior forwards who went on to play pro ball — Jon Leuer (18.3-point average), Keaton Nankivil (9.7) and Tim Jarmusz (3.9). Thanks to Taylor, their trio of replacements combined to average 26.9 points.
Taylor’s stats all went down, surely costing him a shot at another All-America honor, but it was all so that the Badgers would be rolling like they are now.
“Well, I know I certainly wouldn’t want to trade him with the deadline today,” Ryan cracked, referring to the main story in the NBA on Thursday.