On Friday, when discussing the Badgers’ win over Pittsburgh, Hayes said he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. On Sunday, he was more succinct.
While talking about Wisconsin winning 66-63 on Bronson Koenig’s game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer despite a sub-par performance as a team, he managed to slip in a crack on himself.
“Our best player was poop again today,” Hayes said.
The Wisconsin junior forward, who averaged a team-high 16.3 points per game before coming to St. Louis, scored 12 points against Pittsburgh on 3-of-17 shooting, including 0 for 6 from 3-point range.
On Sunday against second-seeded Xavier, Hayes scored six points on 2-of-10 shooting and was misfired on all five of his 3-point attempts.
So in two games in the Gateway City, Hayes is a combined 5-for-27 shooting (18.5 percent) from the field and 0 for 11 on 3-point attempts.
Still, with two seconds remaining on Sunday night and the score tied at 63, Wisconsin coach Greg Gard drew up a play that had Hayes as the first option to win the game to advance to the Sweet 16.
“I think Nigel was in the post,” Wisconsin guard Zak Showalter said. “We were just trying to get an easy one around the basket, but they guarded that perfectly so B came around and made a Bronson Koenig move.”
Hayes knew that either he or Koenig would get the opportunity to win the game. Koenig got the opportunity and “Klutch Koenig” — as Hayes called him — made the most of it.
“We knew the ball was going to Bronson or myself,” Hayes said. “I was going to try to catch the ball in the 15-foot area and try to either get a turnaround or try and make a quick drive and get some contact for a foul to go to the free throw line.
“We kind of looked at each other and we gave that confidence look because we know this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. We play one-on-one before the games and try to hit these tough shots and the shot he hit is the same shot I’ve seen 3,000 times since we’ve been warming up for games this season so I had all the confidence in the world in him.”
Although Hayes is 7-for-42 in three postseason games this year, he still found other ways to contribute. His eight rebounds were a team-high and his three assists tied for the team best. He also held Xavier leading scorer Trevon Bluiett (15.4 ppg) to only seven points on 3-for-11 shooting. All those things helped set the stage for his classmate.
“I’ve been a part of some game-winning shots, but this one’s the biggest one," Hayes said. "It just means a lot knowing that this team, where we’ve come from, the start that we had, all the things other guys had to deal with, them being told we weren’t good enough, we’re not even going to make the tournament, we’re not going to finish top five in the Big Ten ... for us to be on our way to Philly for a Sweet 16, I’m just really proud of the guys and the way that they’ve grown and matured and gained confidence in themselves."
Showalter takes charge
Gard made sure to credit Zak Showalter for his clutch play — taking a charge against Xavier guard Edmond Sumner — with four seconds left, knowing that such a play would get lost in the euphoria of a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“It doesn't get talked about and won't get talked about as much, but that was huge to be able to draw that charge,” Gard said. “And he even negated an attempt to try to get by him earlier, earlier in the possession and then to be able to get that. That's why that kid's in the program. And he does a lot of things that don't show up in the stat sheet. And that was an example of one of them.”
Having taken 15 charges this season entering the tournament, Showalter said that one felt good to get in that moment with the game on the line.
“I knew what he was going to do,” Showalter said. “I knew he was going to try to attack his right hand, so I just tried to take that away as best I could and luckily it paid off.”
Gard was asked in the post-game press conference how long before the team and coaching staff starts preparing for its next opponent, No.6 Notre Dame.
“We’ll enjoy it tonight and the flight back home,” he said. “And then we’ll start — I’ll put together a plan with our staff on how we’re going to approach the week. These guys have had two toe-to-toe battles with Pittsburgh and now Xavier, two very physical games. They earned the right to get here in this tournament. They obviously earned their way through Friday and this one here tonight.
“So I always make sure that they get a chance to enjoy it. And we’ll work on that with the staff, with Notre Dame, maybe starting already on the flight home. But these guys — we’ll enjoy this for at least through tonight for sure.”