BUFFALO, N.Y. – With time winding down in their careers, Wisconsin seniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes felt they had more to offer after a season of close calls and runner-up finishes. With one final go around in the tournament where they first made their marks, they once again embraced the spotlight.
Koenig scored a career-high 28 points – including setting a school-record with eight 3-pointers – and Hayes notched his third straight double-double to lead the eighth-seeded Badgers to an 84-74 victory over ninth-seeded Virginia Tech at the KeyBank Center late Thursday night in the opening round of the N.C.A.A. tournament.
“You can definitely say I was looking for my shot,” Koenig said. “It's something I take pride in, being a senior point guard, is making plays in critical moments.”
Hayes hit some big shots and some pressure free throws to finish with 16 points and 10 rebounds. The senior registered 14 points and seven board in the second half alone, going 8-for-9 from the line.
Sophomore Khalil Iverson – returning after missing the last two games following the shooting death of two of his cousins - chipped in 11 off the bench to help the Badgers (26-9) shoot 50 percent in the second half and win their opening round N.C.A.A. tournament game for the 10th time in 11 years.
A lot was made about Wisconsin being under-seeded and having a quick turnaround after losing in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament championship. UW showed it can deliver in big situations, which is will need to do when it takes on No.1 overall seed – and defending national champion – Villanova (32-3) at 1:40 p.m. CT Saturday.
“I thought we got the ball in some pretty high percentage areas,” Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said. “We wanted to make sure we tried to touch the post when we could. We shot quite a few free throws down the stretch, too.”
Senior Zach LeDay scored 23 points to lead four Hokies in double figures, but Virginia Tech (22-11) never could get over the hump in a game that was two possessions or less from 17:06 to :37 in the second half. Five times the Hokies cut the lead to one point, only to have Wisconsin respond with a bucket on the next possession.
Twice it was Wisconsin finding Koenig for a 3-pointer, as five different players combined to assist on every one of Koenig’s perimeter makes. Finishing 9-for-21 overall and 8-for-17 from three, Koenig just kept telling himself to stay aggressive.
“I was feeling it a little bit,” Koenig said. “I don't think I shot all that well, to be honest, looking at my numbers, but I knew the way they were going to play defense with the switching and everything like that, and going back to zone, and back and forth, that I was going to be able to get some open looks if I just kept moving them.”
The late-game heroics are nothing new for Koenig, who drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer last year to send Wisconsin to the Sweet 16 with a win over second-seeded Xavier. This time it was a slow death the senior delivered with countless sucker punches that stymied the Hokies’ rhythm.
“He's done that throughout the year,” Gard said. “He's hit big shots for us … He has a tendency to obviously have the ball in his hands, so the opportunities go up. At the end of the game, you want the ball in your point guard's hands, whether it's him shooting or making plays for others. And he was opportunistic, and he hit obviously timely shots when we needed it.”
Wisconsin needed Koenig’s shooting to survive on a night where its defense was far from perfect. The Badgers allowed junior Justin Bibbs to convert a pair of four-point plays – on two inbounds plays Gard said the team had practiced the last two days – and gave up plentiful in dribble penetration. Virginia Tech scored 32 points in the paint and 10 off only six offensive rebounds.
The Hokies finished at 50 percent shooting in the first half and, although outrebounded 11-3 on the offensive glass, outscored UW 8-7 on second-chance points and 16-12 in points in the paint.
UW made things look better by holding the Hokies to no field goals in the final 5:38 to close the game on a 15-6 run, including 10-1 in the final 2:25.
“Our defense, it wasn't good at all,” Hayes said. “I'm sure (Gard will) be up all night with clenched fists watching film at how poor we were. … We needed a score record-breaking performance in order to beat them.”
UW needed other players, too. Iverson contributed eight points, five rebounds and an assist in the opening half. He finished with seven rebounds and hit 7 of 10 free-throw attempts
One of his biggest plays late came from Hayes, whose spin move on Virginia Tech’s Ty Outlaw led to a 3-point play and a 77-73 lead with 2:07 remaining. On the next possession, Ethan Happ cleaned up a rushed Koenig 3-pointer to beat the shot clock to make the lead six with 1:23 remaining. Happ battled foul trouble to finish with 10 points and eight rebounds, as UW turned 17 offensive rebounds into 18 second-chance points.
The Hokies were playing in their first N.C.A.A. tournament since 2007 while the Badgers’ senior class played in their 15th postseason game in the last four years. Down the stretch there was no substitute for experience.
“I think it definitely helped a lot for us to have the older guys that we have and have been through some of the runs we've had in the tournament,” Hayes said. “I think it showed with Bronson the way he responded to each time they went on a run. Each time they hit a bit shot, he responded with a big shot and that's something that you need.”