The roster was stripped of the key playmakers and glue guys from consecutive Final Four runs. Their Hall of Fame head coach retired midseason, shocking his long-time assistants and his players with the timing. A leadership void and inconsistent play left the team 9-9 overall, 12th in the Big Ten and far outside of the N.C.A.A. tournament field.
Stuck in a two week offensive slump, Koenig hit two clutch 3-point shots in the final 11.7 seconds, including the game-winner at the buzzer, to lift No.7 Wisconsin to a 66-63 upset over No.2 Xavier at the Scottrade Center Sunday.
“I like to have the ball in my hands in those kind of situations because I believe in myself,” Koenig said, still wet from the water bath he received on the court and in the locker room. “I know my coaches and teammates believe in me, and that's what they did. It turned out all right.”
Going to its third consecutive Sweet 16 and fifth in the last six seasons, Wisconsin (22-12) will play No.6 Notre Dame (23-11) at the Wells Fargo Center this Friday (6:27 p.m. CT) after Koenig hit one of the most memorable shots in program history.
“I’ve seen him make a lot of big shots — none bigger than that one — but that kid’s got a flair for the dramatic,” said junior Zak Showalter, “and he definitely showed that tonight.”
Even more remarkable was Koenig entered Sunday in one of the worst 3-point shooting slumps of his college career. He went 2-for-9 in the regular season finale at Purdue, 1-for-6 in the humbling Big Ten tournament loss to Nebraska and went 0-for-2 against Pittsburgh, ending his streak of 43 consecutive games with at least one 3-point make.
But there was no hesitation with UW inbounding the ball with 2.0 seconds left that Koenig wanted to take the shot. Although one of the primary options was junior Nigel Hayes in the post, Koenig told freshman Ethan Happ before he started the inbounds play that he wanted the ball.
“I went up to him and told him, pass to me if I'm open,” said Koenig. “And I got open. He did a great job of hitting me.”
Although off-balanced and with guard Remy Abell having both hands up defending, Koenig had no doubts after he took one dribbled and squared to shoot.
“I knew it was going in before it even left my hand because that's a shot I practice quite a bit pregame with Nigel Hayes one-on-one and I do a lot of step-backs in the corner,” said Koenig. “And I let it fly. And I knew it was going in. And I can't really explain the feeling after I hit it.”
His teammates knew it, too.
“Klutch Koenig, spelled with a K,” said Hayes. “He did a great job for us.”
Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard called the game “a microcosm” of the season, accurate considering the Badgers never backed down when adversity suggested it do otherwise.
The Badgers appeared done after Xavier (28-6) took a 58-49 advantage – the largest lead of the game. At the time the Musketeers were routinely getting to the free throw line (12-for-17), the Badgers were not (3-for-7) and UW’s shot selection was failing them (seven straight empty possessions, the last four of which were 3-pointers).
But slowly Wisconsin chipped away, closing the deficit to 61-59 with 2:11 left on an offensive rebound put back by Happ, who also delivered a block on the ensuing possession. With Hayes again struggling (2-for-10), Happ picked up the slack with a game-high 18 points and seven rebounds.
Scoring only once on its final six possessions, Xavier increased the lead to three with 31.2 seconds left until Koenig drilled a deep 3-pointer from nearly 25 feet on a busted play to tie the game with 11.7 seconds left.
Koenig his six 3-pointers in the game, four in the second half.
“Give Bronson Koenig all the credit in the world,” said Xavier coach Chris Mack. “I don't know if I've ever been on the wrong end of two dagger 3s like that in the last 11 seconds of the game.”
Lost in the postgame revelry was Showalter drawing a charge to set up Koenig’s winner. Having studied tape on Xavier freshman guard Edmond Sumner and knowing he was likely going to attack with his right hand, Showalter got into position and drew the ball when Sumner’s left shoulder went square into Showalter’s chest.
“That was huge to be able to draw that charge,” said Gard. “He even negated an attempt to try to get by him earlier in the possession and then to be able to get that. That's why that kid's in the program. He does a lot of things that don't show up in the stat sheet and that was an example of one of them.”
That gave the ball back to Wisconsin with 4.3 seconds left and Hayes called timeout with two seconds remaining to set up a play in the frontcourt that became one of the shots of the tournament.
“We couldn’t have played better defense,” Mack said.
Wisconsin went on a 17-5 run for the final 5 minutes, 59 seconds to keep dancing another weekend.
After giving up 91 points to Purdue and 70 to Nebraska, the Badgers held Pittsburgh to 43 and a Xavier team averaging 80 points per game 17 points below its average.
“Defensively this team has grown so much in the last month, and really here this weekend,” Gard said, noting Wisconsin – mainly Hayes – led Xavier leading-scorer Trevon Bluiett to 7 points on 3-for-11 shooting. “These are probably maybe two of the best defensive performances we've had all year.
“November, December, down nine, they might have wilted and waved the white flag. This time of year they're not doing that. They've grown and matured in a lot of ways. Obviously that's the result.”
A result that not many outside the Wisconsin locker room believed would be possible.