WASHINGTON – Finishing second in the regular season and the conference tournament would be a banner year for some teams. Not this year with a Wisconsin team full seniors that expected to sweep both titles.
After trading shot for shot against a Michigan team looking nothing like one playing its fourth game in four days, eighth-seed Michigan pulled away from second-seeded Wisconsin in the second half to claim the 2017 Big Ten tournament championship with a 71-56 victory at the Verizon Center.
Wisconsin (25-9) put three players in double figures but played the title match much like they played the Big Ten regular season – good early on, then fading at the end to second place.
“We were good for the first two games,” senior Nigel Hayes said. “We played how we practice, how we were supposed to play. We played how we knew we could play. We played how we expected ourselves to play. The results showed. This game, we kind of took a detour from that, kind of played how we were doing in February.”
Hayes, senior Bronson Koenig and sophomore Ethan Happ were named to the all-tournament team and combined for 43 of Wisconsin’s points, although neither of the three could turn around the Wolverines’ momentous tidal wave.
“They were hitting some prayers,” Koenig said. “As a team that can live and die by the three, they made some tough shots.”
Led by tournament MVP Derrick Walton’s 22 points, Michigan (24-11) won its fourth game in for days by shooting 56.3 percent and hitting 10 3-pointers, showing no signs of heavy legs or being impacted by its Wednesday evening flight skidding off the runaway after takeoff was aborted due to high winds.
A Koenig 3-pointer ended a wild first half with the Badgers only down 33-32. Both teams shot over 53 percent from the field and hit at least 13 field goals, but Michigan rode a suffocating second-half defense that held the Badgers without a field goal for the first eight minutes that was the decisive moment in the game.
“They just got up on the shooters a little more,” Koenig said of the Michigan's second-half defense. “We weren't finishing as well as we have been inside. Obviously some shots weren't going in that were going in the past few games.”
The Badgers were able to cut the lead to 51-45 following a three by senior forward Vitto Brown (five points) and a steal and layup by senior Zak Showalter (eight points) but could get no closer. Trailing by seven with 2:59 remaining, Michigan pulled away with a 6-0 run with three fast-break baskets to end the drama.
“They just brought more intensity than we did,” Showalter said. “We maybe didn't have the same intensity as we had the last two games.”
The Wolverines shot 11-for-16 from 2-point range, 3-for-10 from 3-point range and 7-for-9 on free throws down the stretch to outscore the Badgers, 38-24, in the second half. Wisconsin managed to shoot only 8-for-30 (26.7 percent) after Koenig’s halftime buzzer beater.
Koenig (0-for-7), Happ (2-for-8) and Hayes (2-for-6) all misfired after being on point early on, especially around the rim
“There were times where we looked like the team playing four games in four days,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said.
Wisconsin led 21-20 with 7:03 remaining in the first half but played from behind the rest of the way when Walton hit 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions to give Michigan a 30-20 lead with 5:25 left in the first half.
“They shot the ball extremely well,” Hayes said. “A lot of tough shots.”
An hour after that disappointed, Wisconsin was saddled with more frustrations, getting an eight-seed and having to play Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y against ninth-seed Virginia Tech. Between a charter flight home Sunday night and another one out to their regional site Tuesday, the Badgers will have one more chance to salvage some kind of title from their season of high expectations.
“I thought we played well for two days,” Gard said. ‘We’ve got to take the positives from that.”