While fans were thrilled that the Badgers lead top-seeded Villanova by four at halftime, the Badgers’ second-year head coach was bothered. UW had given up eight offensive rebounds, committed eight turnovers and had not fully taken advantage of the Wildcats shooting only 29.4 percent in the first half because they had scored 22 of their 27 points off turnovers and second-chance points.
Prepared to hammer home the points as he entered the locker room at the midway point of halftime, Gard realized his work was already done when written on a dry erase board was: take care of the ball, block out and rebound by senior Nigel Hayes.
“You know your message is getting through,” Gard said. “If you do some little things well, it gives you a chance.”
Improving enough in those key areas, including giving up only two second-chance points in the second half, was part of the reason why eighth-seed Wisconsin (27-9) registered the first major upset of the tournament and advanced to play fourth-seed Florida Gators (26-8) in New York City Friday (8:59 p.m., TBS).
Wisconsin’s recent run of success on the court is unmatched. Four consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, six in the past seven seasons, a nation’s-best 13 tournament wins over the last four years and five wins over No.1 or No.2 seeds in the last four N.C.A.A. tournaments.
But if anyone thinks the Badgers are satisfied, all they have to do is bring up how those runs ended.
While falling in the national semifinals and national finals in consecutive years was painful, Wisconsin’s seniors point consistently to the implosion they suffered last year in the regional semifinal against Notre Dame as the one that stings the most.
Gard said that game gets mentioned “almost every week” and more than any other loss in his tenure, mainly because of how the events unfolded.
“It’s a game we should have won,” Hayes said. “It’s a situation that we’d been in a million times earlier that year and handled it well.”
To recap, Wisconsin committed 17 turnovers – many of them unforced with sloppy entry passes and poor ball handling – and had three critical gaffes 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, Hayes received the pass and was immediately trapped. The Badgers wanted the ball to get to Hayes because of his length and strength to be able to fight through traps. Hayes did that but lost the ball, resulting in an uncontested layup.
Suddenly trailing by one with 14.4 seconds left, Bronson Koenig – the hero who sent UW to the Sweet 16 with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Xavier – drove the length of the floor, but his layup never touched rim.
After two Notre Dame free throws 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. Two free throws nailed the coffin shut with the Irish ended the game on an 8-0 run.
“We had a chance to win it down the stretch and collectively we didn’t do enough to get the job done,” said senior Zak Showalter, who committed the final turnover in the last three seconds. “It’s been on us, this group of seniors, to make sure we’re leading and taking care of those minor details. Those are the things that matter at the end of game when you have to close out a team.”
Wisconsin nearly almost did it again Saturday. Leading 62-61 with another 40 seconds remaining, Koenig’s trap just past midcourt resulted in a forced pass, a turnover and a near-fast break going the other direction. If it wasn’t for Hayes’ right arm reaching for the ball coming into contact with Donte DiVincenzo, the narrative might have been the same.
Fortunately DiVincenzo hit one of two free throws with 36.4 seconds left, allowing Hayes to hit the eventual winner on the next possession.
“We’ve talked about the legacy we want to leave,” Koenig said. “We’ve accomplished so much already, but getting to another Final Four is one of our goals we’ve been talking about since last season. It would be a really cool thing if we could do that.”
After last year’s change over, things have returned to normal. Wisconsin is 26th nationally in turnovers with 11.0 per game. The Badgers are 11th in the country in giving up only 61.8 points per game and committing an average of 16 fouls per game, 23rd-fewest in the nation.
Those things will be critical against a Florida team that is athletic and long, relies on three talented guards, utilizes a deep rotation and defensively likes to extend in the full court and unleash some shot blockers.
It’s part of the reason why a Wisconsin program that has already proven itself, and added a victory over the tournament’s overall top seed to the mantel, still has a big chip on the shoulder.
“We’re still the lowest seed in our region left,” Gard said. “We’re the underdog.”