After Michigan State Branden Dawson slammed home another thunderous dunk, pushing the Spartans’ lead to 11 points and seizing every ounce of momentum in the United Center, Ryan burned a 30-second timeout, looked at each one of his starters from a 30-win team and called them “soft.”
It struck a nerve.
“We had to take some pride in what we were doing,” said senior Frank Kaminsky. “We were letting them walk all over us. That’s not our identity. That’s not who we are. They were throwing punches at us, and we had to go back out and punch back.”
Instead of a haymaker, top-seeded and sixth-ranked Wisconsin executed a continuous barrage of jabs to set up the knockout blow to the kings of March.
With its back firmly against the wall, Wisconsin closed the game on a 34-12 run, including scoring all 11 points in overtime, to shock third-seeded Michigan State, 80-69, for the Badgers’ third Big Ten tournament title and first since 2008.
“Even I’m speechless and that’s hard to do,” said Ryan. “It was the fight in this group, and to do what they did when it seemed like Michigan State couldn’t do anything wrong. I just hope we have something left in us come NCAA Tournament time.”
Nigel Hayes tied his career high with 25 points and was a perfect 12-for-12 from the free throw line; Kaminsky finished with 19 points, including a huge 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation; Bronson Koenig – without a field goal and only one point through the first 29:17 – scored 17 of his 18 points down the stretch.
Wisconsin (31-3) tied the program record for single season wins with the 2007-08 team, a group that also swept the conference titles, and earned the program’s first number one seed, playing No.16 Coastal Carolina in the West Region in Omaha, Neb., on Friday.
And they’re going in after one of their most thrilling victories of the season.
Dominating the paint and riding a wave of momentum from its semifinals victory over Maryland, Michigan State (23-11) nearly had two hands around its second straight Big Ten tournament trophy, and fifth overall, thanks to shooting over 60 percent midway through the second half and building its double-digit lead.
Like Wisconsin had done throughout the tournament, Michigan State’s run was quick and effective. After a Kaminsky layup gave Wisconsin a 38-34 lead, the Spartans executed a 23-8 run by pounding the paint and pushing the tempo. The Spartans first three buckets were engineered off back cuts for baskets at the rim, as Michigan State scored 14 of its 36 points in the paint on the jaunt.
Dawson (16 points) was responsible for six of them, including the steal off Sam Dekker and a thunderous jam at the opposite end. Even Michigan State’s free throw shooting was unstoppable. A team that shoots 62.7 percent from the free throw line, tied for 333rd out of 347 teams, the Spartans were a perfect 9-for-9.
It was then that the law of averages finally took over.
It started simply enough, a Koenig 3-pointer to cut the lead to 57-49, appearing to be a blip on the radar after Gavin Schilling dunked home two points to push the lead back to 10.
“I knew we had to chip away at it, but I knew (the 3-pointer) could have been a big turning point, which is was,” said Koenig. “It was good for my confident to see the ball go through the net like that.”
But then Kaminsky had a 3-point play and the points keep coming: Koenig registered a layup, Hayes attacking for an old-fashioned 3-point play, Koenig with another 3-pointer and Hayes with two free throws.
In a span of five possessions, Wisconsin scored 14 points, a 14-3 run to tie the game.
“I thought they (Michigan State) regressed to the mean,” said Koenig, with a smile.
From that point on it was a fight. Four more lead changes over the final 4:16 delivered countless turning points. Kaminsky’s a 3-pointer from the top of the key gave Wisconsin a 67-64 lead with 1:04 remaining, only to see Denzel Valentine (16 points) answer with a 3-pointer on the next possession over Kaminsky.
After Travis Trice, who Gasser limited to only six points, hit a layup with 44.9 left, Gasser dove into press row on the ensuing possession to save a rebound, a confused melee that caused Valentine to heave the ball down court, Dekker to retrieve the turnover and Koenig to hit two free throws to tie the game with 15 seconds left after driving to the rim.
“Josh is willing to do anything for this team,” said Kaminsky. “He give his whole body for our team. That’s indicative of how he plays basketball and indicative of how much he cares about this team.”
Wisconsin methodically worked the clock down with fouls to give and when Dawson’s wing jumper rimmed out with no time remaining, the Badgers took control. Given new life, Wisconsin outscored Michigan State 11-0 in overtime, with Hayes (7) and Koenig (4) scoring all the points and the Spartans going 0-for-6 with two turnovers in the extra session.
“I thought we played one of the greatest games we've played for 32, 32-and-a -half minutes, or 35, 36 minutes,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who fell to 4-1 in tournament title games. “And then we made a couple mistakes, and they made a couple of great shots, and that's the way the game goes.
“To go 9 for 9 from the line, to do almost everything we wanted to do, to dominate them on the boards, it was a couple of bad turnovers and a couple great plays by them.”
There are countless moments that could be labeled the turning points, but UW doesn’t deny that the calculated harsh words resonated.
“Coach gave us a little hint, saying I didn’t know I had such soft players and comments like that,” said Hayes. “It kind of made us check our heart and our passion of going out there. The guys on the bench were telling us we got to want it. When we got on a little run in the overtime, we showed that we wanted the Big Ten championship.”
Starting 3-for-10 and 1-for-6 from 3-point range in the first half, Wisconsin again relied on its secret Chicago weapon for a spark. Senior Duje Dukan hit a pair of 3-pointers, cleaned up an offensive rebound and brought some energy defensively. He drew a post charge and notched a steal against Valentine, which turned into Dukan leading the fast break and dishing to Dekker for a layup.
After averaging 4.2 points in Big Ten play, Dukan scored 22 in three Big Ten tournament games, including 11 Sunday.
“Duje’s back home, he’s at his favorite place in the world, so I’m not surprised to see him play well,” said Kaminsky. “We all know what he’s capable of and he went out there and proved it.”
Outside of Dukan, Hayes’ 8 points and a Dekker reverse dunk, there wasn’t much else to get excited about, not with Michigan State shooting 54.5 percent in the opening 20 minutes. It followed the three-day weekend’s theme for Wisconsin, which also had slow shooting starts against Michigan and Purdue. Of course, UW followed the other theme of turning it on late and overwhelming another opponent.
“This season especially, we’re really not used to be down 11 with seven minutes to go, so I thought it was a really good test for us,” said Koenig. “It’ll make us that much better going into the tournament.”