March 10, 2007

Wisconsin advances to Ohio State showdown

Box Score

CHICAGO -Nothing fazed Alando Tucker. It didn't matter that he was constantly twisting like a contortionist, trying to elude his defender. Tucker showed why he is the Big Ten's player of the year.

He set the school's career scoring record and finished with 21 points to lead No. 3 Wisconsin past Illinois 53-41 in the semifinals of the conference tournament Saturday.

Kammron Taylor did his part, too, scoring all but two of his 16 points in the second half to help set up a championship matchup with No. 1 Ohio State, which beat Purdue 63-52 behind a superb effort from freshman center Greg Oden.

Tucker and Taylor were impressive, too.

Tucker carried over the momentum from Friday's quarterfinal win over Michigan State, when he scored 18 of his 21 points in the second half, and asserted himself immediately.

He began the day with 2,146 points - one shy of Michael Finley - and set the record on his first attempt, when he pulled up in the lane less than two minutes into the game. Tucker hit his first four shots and was 10-of-17, twisting and turning and doing whatever he had to do to score.

Good things started happening for Taylor midway through the second half, after Illinois pulled within 39-34.

He scored 10 points in a 3 1/2-minute stretch, starting with a 3-pointer from the right corner and a jumper that sent the Illini into a timeout with 9:18 remaining. He hit another 3 from the right side to increase the lead to 13 and answered Rich McBride's 3 with another basket that made it 49-37 with 7:16 left.

"I was just making better decisions with the ball," Taylor said. "I wasn't trying to force things like I was in the first half, and ... when shots are going down, everything looks good."

Warren Carter scored 14 for Illinois, which had won 18 straight at the United Center. The 41 points were a season-low for the Illini.

Wisconsin (29-4), which won the tournament in 2004, reached its third final - and third meeting this season with Ohio State. The first two were down-to-the-wire affairs, with the Badgers winning 72-69 at home on Jan. 9 and the Buckeyes returning the favor Feb. 25 in Columbus, 49-48 in a 1 vs. 2 matchup.

Now, they're playing for a conference championship and maybe a No. 1 NCAA seed.

"We're not really saying that we want a No. 1 seed right now," Tucker said. "A lot of teams get hurt doing that. Our focus is to win this game tomorrow, and everything else will play itself out once we take care of business."

Two years after playing for the national championship, Illinois (23-11) is at the mercy of the selection committee. Although Wisconsin fans chanted ``NIT'' near the end of the game, the Illini took a big step toward securing an NCAA berth with their 58-54 overtime win over Indiana on Friday.

"I think we deserve it," Carter said. "We were playing very well down the stretch. We haven't had any really bad losses; we definitely would have been better if we had gotten some of those key wins. With our body of work, it looks like we're in good shape, but you still don't know."

Coach Bruce Weber said, "I don't know what's in the committee's mind, but I feel we have a pretty good case. I just hope we're not the first Big Ten team with over 20 wins and finish over .500 in the league not to get in."

They'll find out Sunday.

The Illini had not lost at the United Center since falling to Indiana in the conference semifinals six years ago, but it was tough to tell which team had the homecourt advantage. Illini orange and Badgers red colored the stands.

Tucker certainly looked comfortable, even though the Illini's Brian Randle did all he could to make him uneasy in the early stages. He kept a hand in Tucker's face, but it didn't matter.

Tucker was 7-for-11 with 14 points in the first half as Wisconsin built a 23-18 lead.

"His game has just improved, improved, improved" said Weber, who recruited Tucker, when he coached at Southern Illinois. "He's a 3-point threat. He can handle the ball. I like it because, one, he stayed. And he's done what, in this society, now no one wants to do - work at it, get better. Everyone wants instant gratification."



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