ST. LOUIS – It was as if the University of Wisconsin couldn’t have played a worse half of basketball if it tried. The shooting was off, the interior defense was sporadic and empty possessions were mounting.
And yet, somehow, the Badgers only found themselves down six at the break.
“As long as we were getting good looks and the quality of the shot was good, the ball was going to go in,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said. “The biggest thing we talked about at halftime, there were points and times in that first half I didn't think we matched their physicality. That's what we talked about four days since Selection Sunday how physical this game was going to be.”
After being pushed around for the last five halves, the latest in which its 16 first-half points were the fewest scored of any team in the N.C.A.A. tournament, Wisconsin finally got physical on defense and scratched out enough baskets to survive an ugly 47-43 victory over No.10 Pittsburgh at the Scottrade Center Friday.
“I think it was a team effort all the way through,” said junior Vitto Brown.
Survive and advance the Badgers (21-12) did, leading for only 3 minutes, 49 seconds and becoming the first team to win an N.C.A.A. tournament game scoring less than 50 points since 2003. Advancing to the second round for the ninth time in the last 10 years, UW will play for its fifth Sweet 16 appearance in six seasons Sunday against No.2 Xavier (28-5) at approximately 7:40 p.m. CT. The two schools have split the four all-time meetings, which includes the Musketeers eliminating Wisconsin in the second round of the 2009 tournament in the most recent meeting.
It marked the fourth straight season UW won a game scoring in the 40s and the fewest points the program has scored in an N.C.A.A. tournament win since the 1941 title game.
“This game obviously came down to being able to get stops defensively when offensively the gears were grinding,” Gard said. “We were having a hard time putting the ball in the basket. But to be able to defensively lock down and really play, probably defensively, as well as we played in a long time.”
Saying earlier this week that Wisconsin’s tournament run will be dependent of the success of UW’s two best players, Gard saw Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig go a combined 4-for-25. Hayes finished with 12 and Koenig only two, but both were picked up by Ethan Happ registering a game-high 15 points and nine rebounds.
“I gotta credit my teammates for helping me along the process of the season,” Happ said, scoring 12 of his points in the second half. “I've had good games. I've had bad games. And they've told me not to get too high or too low and coach has echoed that to me as well. In the second half of the season, Coach started kind of getting a point to get me the ball a little bit more and that helped me take another step up the ladder that I needed to.”
Following the freshman’s lead, Brown scored eight of his 11 after halftime, including a 3-pointer to give UW a 44-42 lead with 2:35 to go.
“First off, to be able to keep the ball alive, that was the biggest thing,” Brown said, reference Zak Showalter’s offensive rebound to extend the possession. “And we knew at that moment of the game we had to make them pay for every mistake that they make. So it was an open shot. I was ten toes to the rim, so I was just ready to shoot it. I think from then on that helped us with our momentum and we were able to get another stop in the next play.”
UW never trailed after that, closing out the game on an 8-3 run. Wisconsin shot only 32.1 percent but saw Pittsburgh (21-12) shoot only 37.5 percent, as the two teams combined for the third fewest points in tournament history.
Four times UW tied or took the lead in the first 17 minutes of the second half, only to see Pittsburgh reclaim it on the ensuing possession. UW never led by more than four points and couldn’t exhale until James Robinson (7 points, 3-for-15) ran into teammate Michael Young (six) with four seconds left, causing a miss that would have put the Panthers ahead by one.
Pitt never got the ball back, as UW held Pittsburgh’s three double-digit scorers (Young, Jamel Artis and Robinson) below their season averages.
“He didn't mean to run into me,” said Robinson. “It just happened. That's what it came down to.”
In reality, the difference was Wisconsin finally found its physicality in the second half. Assistant coach Gary Close said prior to the game that Wisconsin’s ability to control the paint would determine the outcome. Pitt scored its first 10 points inside, leading to a 16-6 edge in the first half, and were beaten 22-16 on the boards in a number that didn’t reflect how dominant the Panthers were.
That changed coming out of the locker room. Wisconsin out rebounded Pittsburgh by seven in the second, including nine offensive rebounds that led to 14 second-chance points. It was a stat that made Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon repeatedly shake his head looking at the final stats during his postgame press conference.
“We needed to win more physical battles,” Gard said of the halftime talk. “And I thought that's where we were much better tonight than we were a week ago in the Big Ten tournament. We battled better tonight and we were on the floor more tonight. And we were more physical in the paint. And that ended up being the difference between what we did on the glass and then what we were able to do defensively.”
The Badgers started the game 2-for-16, either feeling the effects of having seven days between games or the clunker it put forth against Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament game. But after digging itself a 20-8 hole and showing no signs of life, Wisconsin began to chip away.
Wisconsin closed the half on an 8-2 run to cut the halftime lead to two possessions and saw Happ start to attack coming out of the locker room. Scoring nine of UW’s first 11 points, Happ twice gave the Badgers a one-point lead.
No team led by more than five points from that point forward, allowing Wisconsin to make enough of the 50-50 plays to earn 40 more minutes.
“It's an exciting time of the year,” Gard said. “It's what these guys work for. They put a lot of time hopefully to be in this position and you always want to seize the opportunity, and these guys did a terrific job of that.”