March 20, 2011
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Keaton Nankivil was the personification of an oft-quoted line from a William Earnest Henley poem. His head was bloody but unbowed. His left eye was nearly swollen shut, too. Sitting on a stool in the middle of the UW locker room late Saturday, he looked like he had just gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson.
“No, Tyson is probably a lot stronger than that,’’ said Nankivil who needed a handful of stitches following the No. 4 seed Badgers' 70-65 win against No. 5 seed Kansas State to close a gash over his eye; the result of an inadvertent elbow from Curtis Kelly. “Not that Kelly isn’t strong. But, man, Tyson is a bruiser.’’
Nankivil wasn’t necessarily drawing a comparison to THAT Bruiser – the curly-haired Mike Bruesewitz, the irrepressible redhead, who played like a heavyweight at both ends of the floor in helping advance the Badgers to the Sweet 16.
But everyone else was talking about THAT Bruiser.
“I don’t know if he’s feeling like he’s Superman or something with that knee brace,’’ Jared Berggren said of Bruesewitz, who sprained his right knee in the Big Ten tournament. “But he has been playing great. Even after his knee is healed and healthy, he might just want to keep that brace on.’’
Others shared a common opinion.
“That’s Mike – Big Shot Mike – he just steps up in big moments,’’ Josh Gasser said.
“So far, Mike Bruesewitz has been the unsung superstar of this team,’’ Nankivil said.
What did Bruesewitz have to say about his big shot; a 3-point dagger that broke a tie with Kansas State and pushed the Badgers into a 64-61 lead with, fittingly, 1:31 left? “I was open – I was in the moment – and I thought, ‘I’m going to let this ride’ and knocked it down,’’’ said Bruiser, No. 31.
Gasser saw it coming – and going down. “The second it left his hand, I crashed the boards,’’ he said. “But I knew it was going in because that’s what Mike does. He’s a hit a couple of those this year.’’
Jordan Taylor saw the same thing. “I could see it in Mike’s footwork and eyes,’’ he said. “He had that confidence about him and I knew he was going to knock it down as soon as he stepped into it.’’
Berggren nearly fainted. “I was going crazy on the bench,’’ he said. “I jumped up so quick and I was yelling so much, I got light-headed and I grabbed Q (Wquinton Smith) and said, ‘I’m going down.’’’
Smith held him up.
Just like Taylor held up his end of the deal during crunch time even though he struggled on offense. It was a Taylor steal that set up the clutch transition basket by Bruesewitz. Together, they had switched on a ball screen with Taylor taking the 6-8 Kelly and Bruesewitz checking Jacob Pullen.
“They tried to run a lob and actually it was a great play-call – they executed it well except they just missed Kelly because he was open for a second,’’ Taylor said. “Me and Mike have been playing together for awhile and we just kind of scrambled to stay with the play.’’
“Jordan did most of the work,’’ added Bruesewitz. “He had the big guy on him – the guy probably outweighed him by about 60 pounds and had a few inches on him – but he fought around him like he always does, being the tough guy that he is, and he got the steal on the post-entry pass.’’
Taylor also came up with a critical defensive stop in the closing seconds by blocking Pullen’s shot. “He was killing me all game, he was wearing me out all over the floor,’’ he said of Pullen, who had 38 points. “I was doing anything I could do make that shot as tough as possible.’’
Taylor kidded that it might have been the first block of his career.
It was actually his fifth block this season. But none have been bigger.
“He came through in the clutch,’’ Nankivil said.
Still surrounded by reporters in the middle of the room, Nankivil was asked if he had gotten a good look at his eye yet. “No, I have not,’’ he said before craning his neck to glance at a mirror over his right shoulder. “Decent. Had stitches in the same place in high school. I’ve had stitches once a year.’’
Nankivil then noted that he doesn’t have a history of cutting very easily.
“To be honest with you, I think I have pretty thick skin,’’ he said.
This UW team, as a whole, reflected as much after losing to Ohio State and Penn State.
“It’s not really a surprise,’’ Bruesewitz said of the trip to the Sweet 16. “We knew as a team we had something special here because we really like each other so much; we’re all really good friends. We all hang out.’’
But now it’s not enough to just be one of the final 16 teams playing in college basketball. “We want to keep this thing going,’’ Berggren said. “We don’t want to this thing to end.’’
Two good friends, seniors Tim Jarmusz and Brett Valentyn, were seated side-by-side in front of their dressing stalls, oblivious to all of the post-game media commotion in the locker room.
The conversation got around to Taylor and the things that he did at the end of the game.
“We talk about teammates picking each other up,’’ Jarmusz said. “Well, he picked himself up – coming back to get that block to save the game. That’s just the type of kid Jordan is.’’
“Big player making a big play,’’ Valentyn said.
“This gives us another week of practice and preparation, it’s such a high,’’ Jarmusz said.
“We get to hang out with our teammates – that’s the best atmosphere there is,’’ Valentyn said.
Jarmusz was asked about Nankivil taking one for the team.
“Looks like Tyson got the best of him,’’ he said, grinning.
Also acknowledging the elbow that Jon Leuer took on the top of his head – opening a three-stitch wound – Jarmusz teased, “It’s good for our bigs to get some stitches every once in a while.’’
Nobody is playing bigger than the Bruiser, either.
“It’s March Madness,’’ Bruesewitz said.