PHILADELPHIA – Wisconsin’s defense was good enough, a stifling irritant to Notre Dame, for the Badgers to advance to their third straight Elite Eight. The identity of the program for as long as Greg Gard has been on the bench, Wisconsin finally had the piece that was missing for most of the season.
But while Wisconsin lived up to one of its calling cards, the other – ball security – ended up being its downfall, creating a stinging result that players and coaches admitted it won’t be easy to get over.
The Badgers’ stringy defense delivered, but ill-timed turnovers and a lack of consistent offensive punch meant the end of Wisconsin’s season in a 61-56 loss at the Wells Fargo Center Friday.
“I think it’s pretty clear that we beat ourselves,” junior Bronson Koenig said, echoing the sentiment of a frustrating visitor’s locker room.
Wisconsin (22-13) committed 17 turnovers – the most since having 26 Dec.23 in Gard’s first game as head coach – and a lot of them were unforced with sloppy entry passes and poor handling. A program known how to close out games, three turnovers came in the final 26 seconds, two of them by the Badgers’ veteran leaders.
With Wisconsin inbounding the ball with a 56-55 lead with 19.3 seconds left, Nigel Hayes received the pass and was immediately trapped. Gard commented that he wanted the ball to get to Hayes because of the junior’s length and strength to be able to fight through traps. Hayes did that but lost the ball, resulting in an uncontested layup by Demetrius Jackson (16 points).
Suddenly trailing by one with 14.4 seconds left, Koenig – the hero who sent UW to the Sweet 16 with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer Sunday against Xavier – drove the length of the floor to the rim, but his layup never touched rim.
After two Notre Dame (24-11) free throws by V.J. Beachem (game-high 19 points) and still having the opportunity to tie the game with 6.8 seconds left, Koenig was stripped of the ball just past the midcourt stripe by Jackson. His two free throws nailed the coffin shut.
“I don't know if there's a program in the country that prides itself more on taking care of the ball and valuing every possession more than Wisconsin,” Gard said. “I don't know if there's anybody that works on it more than we do. And to have this kind of ending, it will sting for a while.”
The loss ends a horrific tournament run for Hayes, who never could find consistency with his shot. After going 7-for-42 and 0-for-17 from 3-point range in UW’s three postseason games, Hayes put in extra shooting hours Monday and Tuesday, but ended up scoring 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting.
He broke his 3-point shooting slump with two 3-pointers in the second half but his six turnovers tied a career high.
“I didn't think I did a good enough job finishing around the rim,” said Hayes, who finished 11-for-54 (20.1 percent) and 2-for-21 (9.5 percent) in four postseason games. “I passed up some shots. I found some teammates that were open. I would definitely love them to go in, but I didn't do a good enough job getting to the rim making sure I finished.”
Once again Wisconsin did all it could to pick up Hayes. Freshman Ethan Happ finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds but fouled out for the first time all season with 46.7 seconds left when diving for a loose ball.
After scoring a total of 11 points in UW’s first three postseason games, Zak Showalterenergized the Badgers with 11.
He slammed home an offensive rebound off a Koenig miss without his feet touching the ground, giving UW the lead right back after Notre Dame had gone on a 12-3 run to take a one-point edge. And after picking up the defensive rebound on the ensuing possession, Showalter ended it by knifing through three defenders for points at the rim for a 41-38 UW lead with just over seven minutes to go.
When Hayes and Jordan Hill scored seven straight points for UW to take a 51-46 lead, everything appeared to be falling into place for Wisconsin with 3:06 to go.
But UW only attempted five shots the rest of the game, as four turnovers zapped costly possessions.
“It was right there,” Showalter said. ‘We had it in our fingertips. We lost it in the end.”
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said Thursday that he wanted to get the Irish out and running, because having to consistently face Wisconsin’s half-court defense meant it “could be a long night.” He was prophetic.
Missing 14 of 15 shots at one point, Notre Dame had as many turnovers (seven) as made shots in the first half, being suffocated by the Badgers’ interior defense. The Irish managed only eight points in the lane in the first half (half coming off fast breaks), as Notre Dame’s bigs were swallowed up by double teams and blocked shots.
The Irish rarely connected from 3-point range, either, finishing 4-for-13 from beyond the arc and scored a season-low 19 first-half points. Yet the Irish were only down four at the break and didn’t lead by more than one until the final seven seconds, thanks to shooting 57.7 percent in the second half.
“At halftime we should have came in with a 15-or-more-point lead if we had just a taken care of the ball,” Koenig said. “We took a lot of quick shots in the first half and had more turnovers in the second half. If we would have just taken care of the ball better and could have some of those shots back, it would have been a different game.”
The frustrations will now stew until the fall, another offseason that will surely create considerable hype. Losing no scholarship seniors and expecting that every rotation player will return, the Badgers will have a solid foundation to build on from a team that went from 9-9 to the second weekend of the tournament.
And if UW needs motivation, they can flip on the tape from Friday, a game in which they only trailed for 2 minutes and 13 seconds.
“We're in the position where everyone told us we wouldn't make the tournament let alone be in the Sweet 16,” Hayes said. “Not to say I'm satisfied, I really do believe we should have won this game. We have the better team. We didn't play well enough, had too many turnovers, but all in all, I'm proud of the team.”