LOS ANGELES - With his team needing a spark as it struggled through an uncharacteristic shooting night, Zak Showalter lived up to his family name proud Thursday: he “showed” up.
Moments are made in March, and the sophomore guard from Germantown delivered with a momentum challenging stretch of basketball that proved a huge difference in top-seed Wisconsin’s 79-72 victory over fourth-seed North Carolina at the Staples Center.“He helped us win the game,” senior guard Traevon Jackson said. “He was the MVP for sure.”
As the Badgers (34-3) and Tar Heels (26-12) battled for every point (including swapping leads nine times), Wisconsin was searching for a spark after North Carolina pushed its lead to seven – its biggest of the game – with 11:11 remaining.
After his teammates cut the lead to one possession, Showalter delivered during the crucial stretch of time.
With six minutes, eight seconds remaining and Wisconsin down by one, back-to-back Showalter layups enabled the game’s final lead change. The first came on a hard cut to the basket, opening up an alley for senior Josh Gasser to feed the ball inside and Showalter to finish on a reverse layup.
“Showy’s not necessarily known as an offensive threat, but he moves well without the ball,” said Gasser. “He can make play. When I saw him go back door, I gave a little ball fake and I knew he was going to be open. The confidence we have in Showy is really high.”
The second came after Showalter registered just his ninth steal of the season, being rewarded for his gamble by picking the pocket of Nate Britt and converting a layup at the other end. It was Wisconsin’s only fast-break point of the game and it was critical.
“Once I got the ball I realized I had to go down to the other end,” Showalter joked, saying he was fighting cramps on his break to the bucket and it was the slowest fast break of his life.
In a span of 3:10, Showalter scored all six of his points and put UW on a 9-3 run.
After scoring seven points in the 12 games leading into the NCAA tournament, Showalter has scored 13 in three NCAA tournament games.
“Showy came up huge for us,” said sophomore Bronson Koenig. “I thought he pretty much won us the game, just coming out and giving us anything we could. He just comes out and plays with so much energy.”
Jackson Jumped Back In
Despite the limited number of minutes Jackson played in his first basketball game in more than two months, his contributions were far from minimal.
Jackson, who suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot in mid-January, told reporters on Wednesday that he felt “100 percent.” In his nine minutes on the floor he looked it, finishing with four points, one assist, one turnover and no discomfort.
“I was excited to go back out there again,” said Jackson. “It was good to be in that moment.”
Entering the game at 14:45 of the first half, Jackson wasted no time in making an impact, hitting a wide-open 3-pointer in the corner eight seconds into his action. And since he had started 84 consecutive games before his injury, his savvy court vision returned, assisting to Gasser for a 3-pointer with 3:24 left to give UW a 68-64 lead.
“Whatever I can do to help [my team], that’s all I can prepare for,” he added.
He noted that he wasn’t necessarily happy with his or the team’s play, but believes there’s only room to improve as the Badgers move on to Saturday’s Elite Eight against second-seed Arizona, a rematch of last year’s 64-63 overtime victory that sent the Badgers to their first Final Four in 14 years.
“We didn’t play good, especially in our first half,” he said. “We got to clean it up because the next game is not going to be that easy.”
Koenig Contained in Postseason
The three NCAA tournament wins have been good for the soul, which has helped Koenig battle through a prolonged shooting slump. Since scoring a career-high 19 points against Purdue in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals and scoring 18 against Michigan State in the tournament finals, Koenig is 7-for-23 in the NCAA tournament, including going 2-for-9 against the Tar Heels.
Koenig finished with nine points in 23 foul-plagued minutes before fouling out for the second time this season.
“I thought (teams) have done a good job making it tough for me the past few games,” said Koenig. “I don’t know. I’m just not knocking them down. I am thinking about it too much, but I know I’ll snap out of it.”
He still hit shots where it counted. Koenig hit a 3-pointer – only his fifth on 15 attempts in the tournament – to decreasing the Tar Heels’ lead to 53-49, setting the stage for Showalter.
Free Throws: Wisconsin advances to the sixth Elite Eight berth in program history … The Badgers improved to 4-4 in Sweet 16 games … Badgers beat North Carolina for the first time in program history (two previous meetings decided by a combined nine points).