Problem was that basketball is two halves, and the hole the Badgers dug for itself was too big to salvage an appearance in the championship game.
Wisconsin's first half was its undoing Saturday, as No.22 Michigan State overwhelmed UW with its length, transition offense and its shooting to set the tone for its 83-75 victory in a Big Ten tournament semifinal at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Michigan State (25-8) advanced to take on in-state rival Michigan in tomorrow's championship based on shooting 56.9 percent overall and putting six players in double figures.
UW had talked all week about getting a ring, a coveted trinket given to winners of Big Ten championships, something the Badgers hadn't earned since sweeping the championships in 2008.
The Badgers put four players in double figures – led by Frank Kaminsky's game-high 28 points – and shot 60 percent from the second half, but those title dreams seemed far fetch when the players looked up at the scoreboard and saw they were down 21 points – its largest deficit of the season – with 5:39 remaining in the first half.
"We put ourselves in that situation," said sophomore Sam Dekker (11 points). "It's no one's fault but ours."
After winning wire-to-wire in the quarterfinals, which included shooting over 60 percent in the second half, Wisconsin (26-7) was the antithesis of a hot start, unable to drive into the paint and attack Michigan State's size and length. That led to a 28 percent field goal percentage, attempted 40 percent of its shots from the perimeter and long rebounds that led to transition breaks for the Spartans.
In the opening half, Wisconsin was outscored 10-0 on fast-break points and created three and-one opportunities on three straight possessions when UW was beaten off the dribble and reached in to foul.
"Those are the little things that we just have to clean up," said Traevon Jackson (10).
Michigan State jumped out to a 7-0 run in the first 1:42 but put the game away with a 16-1 run over a five-minute stretch midway through the first half. That erased UW cutting the lead to six and its chances of playing in back-to-back championship games for the first time since 2007-08.
"We dug ourselves in a hole and you can't dig yourself in a hole against a top-caliber team like Michigan State," said senior Ben Brust (11). "… We just can't put ourselves in holes that we were early on and try to battle back the rest of the way against a team like that."
Spartans senior Adreian Payne was the wrecking crew. He scored 12 of his team-high 18 in the opening 20 minutes. He was efficient (5-for-6) and timely, answering with a putback dunk that again stymied momentum UW was trying to build. The only time he was slowed was when he was on the bench with foul trouble in the second half.
"They had a sense of aggression about them and we were kind of taking it," said Dekker. "We were being a little softer than usual."
The only player who was remotely effective for Wisconsin was Kaminsky, who scored 10 of UW's first 11 points and was the only Badgers player to make a field goal until Dekker's dunk at 11:49. Kaminsky had 12 at halftime, and no other player had more than five.
The Spartans had four such players in a half in which it shot 65.4 percent (17-for-26) and was over 80 percent for long stretches.
"When you are hitting shots the way they were, it's easier to be as aggressive, be more assertive and we weren't doing a good enough job offensively to come back at them," said Jackson. "We started cutting into their lead, but they did such a good job in the first half of getting that big lead that they were comfortable throughout the game."
That start made the finish all that more disappointing. Wisconsin scored on 7 of 9 possessions after the 8:33 mark, but could never get the lead lower than seven until the final seconds. The backbreaker came at 5:22. Having the opportunity to get a stop and really cut into the lead, Branden Dawson caught an inbounds pass in mid air and converted with less than a second on the shot clock. That put the Spartans up 72-63.
"Those kind of sting the heart," said Dekker. "That's them winning the 50-50 balls. Coach (Ryan) always says that's going to define us. Physicality and the team that isn't as tough is the one that's going to lose, especially in tournament time. You lose and you go home, and that's what happened tonight."
Brust knew Wisconsin would battle back, but also knew its start wasn't the blueprint to success.
"At the end of the day we didn't do the things we needed to do to get the job done," he said. "It all started by the way we came out today."