The narrative for the second half of the season was one of unfulfilled promise around the University of Wisconsin.
So much talent that seemingly wasn’t gelling together, the Badgers suffered through offensive slumps, fundamental lapses and a pair of disappointing second-place finishes.
It seemed fitting in a way that the same problems that had dogged Wisconsin all season long popped up in the biggest game of the season - nine missed free throws, 12 missed 3-pointers and 14 turnovers result in 19 points for the third most efficient team in the country.
The only difference this time was the Badgers’ seniors – a group of four battled-tested souls – weren’t ready to be done despite the long odds places on them.
“(Ranking systems) can't calculate heart, will to win, toughness, desire,” Nigel Hayes – one of those seniors - said. “They can't put that into a formula to come out with a percentage chance to win, and that's the things that we have.”
Trailing by seven with 5:16 remaining, eighth-seeded Wisconsin outscored the nation’s No.1 team 15-5 down the stretch – including a driving reverse lay-up by Hayes with 11.4 seconds left – that lifted the Badgers to a 65-62 victory over No.1 Villanova in the N.C.A.A. tournament second round at the KeyBank Center Saturday.
Tying a conference record with most consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, Wisconsin (27-9) – which got 17 points from Bronson Koenig, 12 points and eight rebounds from Ethan Happ and 10 points from Vitto Brown - awaits the winner of fifth-seed Virginia and fourth-seed Florida in Friday’s regional semifinals in New York City.
“Just an unbelievable, gutty performance against a terrific team,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said.
Seventeen years to the day an eighth-seeded Wisconsin knocked off another top-seeded Wildcats program (Arizona) on an improbable Final Four run, the Badgers had history repeat itself thanks to many critical moments, including Hayes’ moxie.
With the game tied at 62 after a missed free throw, Gard drew up a simple side isolation play for Hayes, who delivered a head fake on forward Mikal Bridges, drove baseline and scooped the reserve lay-up threw the net with 10.4 seconds remaining.
“I didn't know what move I was actually going to do before I caught the ball,” Hayes said. “Just went, did a fake spin, got to my left hand and fortunately the lay-up went in for us.
“We wanted to have some composure. We played a really great team, great team. It took a great effort from us, and we're just proud of ourselves for getting the job done.”
To complete the upset, however, UW relied on its defensive calling card.
Looking to force overtime, Villanova senior Josh Hart – a player-of-the-year candidate who led the Wildcats (32-4) with 19 points – drove hard down the left lane line. Having switched on to Hart from Hayes, Happ was expecting Hart to spin back to the center of the lane, only to have him stay on track.
That exposed opening allowed Brown – who went a perfect 3-for-3 from 3-point range in the first half – to swoop in, rip the ball out of Hart’s hands and hang on to it. Fouled with 3.4 seconds left, Brown made the first, endured Nova’s last time out, missed the second and watched as the final heave came nowhere close.
“The way some of the calls were going, we weren't sure if there would have been a foul in the end,” Brown said. “Ethan did a great job keeping his hands back and kind of taking the ambiguity out of so they wouldn't call that foul and then I figured he wasn't paying attention to me, so I kind of reached in there.”
The Wildcats lost in the opening weekend as a top-two seed for the third time in four years, the only difference being last year’s national championship season. Villanova’s top four scorers were all contributors on that team but couldn’t deny Wisconsin’s seniors.
On the Badgers’ 15-5 closing kick, Brown, Hayes and Koenig scoring 13 of the points.
“These were what NCAA Tournament games come down to,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Down the stretch, they made two great offensive plays, two great defensive stops, and that was the difference in the game.”
Wisconsin’s opportunity for advancement appeared to be fleeting as the second half progressed. Koenig picked up his second and third foul and was forced to sit at 16:58, only to be called back into duty at 14:10 with the struggles of true freshman D’Mitrik Trice. Twenty-nine seconds later he was back on the bench after picking up his fourth on an offensive foul.
While on the bench, the senior watched Villanova take the lead on the next possession – its first since the 13:10 mark of the first half – and looked poised to close the door.
“I knew that's not how my career was going to end,” Koenig said. “I knew that when coach gave me the opportunity to get back in there, I was going to make something happen.
Koenig returned just after the Wildcats’ lead grew to seven and went to work. Following a layup by Hayes, Koenig hit a jumper – his first points of the second half – and a 3-pointer from the corner tied the game at 57 with 3:27 remaining
Happ’s driving layup on the next possession put the Badgers back in front 59-58, and Koenig hit another 3-pointer - his third of the game – to put the Badgers up 62-59 after Hayes collected a pair of offensive rebounds.
In between those Wisconsin scores was a block by Happ on guard Donte DiVincenzo (15 points), a block by Hayes on Hart and aggressive defense that allowed no made field goals. UW held Villanova to 22 points in the paint, outscoring then by 10.
“We got better at the point of attack of trying to stop some guys,” Gard said of the second-half defense. “We allowed too much of an angle to the rim at times … There's been a lot teams having a hard time keeping them out of the paint, and we were able to shore it up enough down the stretch to be able to catch them and hang on.”
Villanova wouldn’t go quietly. Jalen Brunson (11 points) spin move on Zak Showalter in the paint gave him space to hit a left-handed lay-up cut the deficit to 62-61 with 1:39 remaining. Following a pair of empty possessions, Villanova’s trap on Koenig just past midcourt led to a turnover and free throw opportunities for DiVincenzo. The 70.9 percent free throw shooter went 1-for-2, tying the game with 36.4 seconds remaining.
That set the stage for some more March Wisconsin magic.
“I told these guys I don't care where we're seeded. We have to win six games,” Gard said, becoming the first coast since Gonzaga’s Mark Few to advance to the Sweet 16 in his first two seasons. “Let's start with these two this weekend.”
The first half was a combination of factors for Wisconsin, which led by as much as 20-12 with 9:23 remaining. UW started 8-for-12 and finished 13-for-24 but went just 1-for-4 from the line and committed eight turnovers that led to 12 Nova points.
Missing nine of their first 12 shots and 15 of its first 21, Villanova shot 29.6 percent in the first half got its first 17 points from a combination of Hart and DiVincenzo, but the turnovers and going 7-for-10 from the free throw line kept the Wildcats in striking distance.
Wisconsin also survived without much of a low-post presence after Happ sat for the final 11:49 with two fouls. UW scored six points in the paint in its first six possessions but had only eight in the next 22.
In two N.C.A.A. tournament games, Happ has played less than 18 first-half minutes because of foul trouble. The only benefit was that the sophomore was fresh, scoring a pair of paint buckets prior to the first media timeout to give the Badgers a 37-33 lead with 16:12 remaining.
It was a sign that Wisconsin had become callused through a season full of trying moments.
“When somebody gets in foul trouble or someone is not playing well, we've done a lot better of job picking each other up and trying to stay positive the whole game,” Koenig said. “At times it does get a little impossible to do that. We just stick together.”