INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—Devin Harris was cooler than ice when the Badgers were behind. Mike Wilkinson was cooler than ice from the free throw line at the right time. But when Wisconsin needed it most, Zach Morley was the coolest of them all.
Morley, a junior forward, snagged two key rebounds and sank a free throw in front of an extremely hostile crowd to give Wisconsin (23-6) a 68-66 win over Michigan State (18-11) Saturday night. The hotly contested game came down to a few missed shots, a few made free throws and a rowdy crowd that raised the din of Conseco Fieldhouse.
Wisconsin and Michigan State spent most of the game neck-and-neck, trading the lead 12 times throughout the game. The game came down to the final seconds, with Wisconsin making one more play than Michigan State at the right time.
With six seconds left on the clock, Spartan junior guard Kelvin Torbert took a shot that would have given the Spartans the win but it bounced off the rim. Morley leapt up and snagged the rebound and was immediately fouled by Torbert. He made his first free throw with 4.8 seconds left but missed the second. Ager grabbed the rebound and sped down the court but missed his final shot, giving the Badgers the ticket to the Big Ten Tournament championship game for the first time in program history.
"I'm just proud of these guys to be playing in a championship game like this in the Big Ten Tournament," head coach Bo Ryan said.
"The blame doesn't go to us," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "I felt bad because play after play that we ran late in the game, I thought these guys executed very well and made some big shots. I give Wisconsin credit. They just made one more big shot than we made."
To get to the championship, Wisconsin had to fight and relied on its stars, Wilkinson and Harris, who had 20 and 21 points, respectively. Wilkinson also had nine rebounds and Morley contributed six points and five rebounds. Sophomore guard Boo Wade also had 10 key points throughout the game, including two free throws that helped bring Wisconsin out of an early 10-point deficit and a 3-pointer that gave the Badgers a 29-27 lead. But at the end, it was the team effort that helped give Wisconsin the win.
"Well, I think the big thing we did down the stretch was that we scrambled real well," Wilkinson said. "We helped each other out, especially the last two possessions; we did a real good job of just making rotations and forcing tough shots. We are real fortunate that they still missed them."
While Morley had the final shot, Harris, who had been quiet most of the day, was the key late in the game. Although Michigan State led by as many as 10 in the first half, Wisconsin came back and was down 35-30 at the half. The Spartans held Harris to only five points in the first 20 minutes but he came roaring back in the second half, making four 3-pointers, including two difficult-but-crisp 3-pointers in the final two minutes. Harris made a 2-point shot to draw Wisconsin within 60-59, then hit a high arching 3-pointer to tie it at 62-62 with 2:01 left to play. His fifth 3-pointer of the game gave Wisconsin a 65-64 lead.
Down 66-65, Wilkinson calmly sank two free throws. Harris missed the front end of a one-and-one with 23.9 seconds left, but Morley's rebounds and final free throw were enough.
"I give credit to Devin Harris," Izzo said. "He made some shots that I'm not sure I would take, but he's done it all year and the credit goes to him."
"The key is the ‘catch-and-release,' he's a quick release-type player—he doesn't need a whole lot of time—and you watch the defenders when they're guarding him," Ryan said. "If they crowd him too close, then he goes behind them or gets fouled."
Wisconsin needed Harris' threes and extra energy because Michigan State put up impressive numbers as a team, shooting 54 percent from the field and making 82 percent of its free throws, while only turning the ball over five times.
Wisconsin also had just five turnovers.
"I thought both teams took pretty good care of the ball," Ryan said. "Each possession was a war. … That's a heck of a ball game."
The win means a lot for Wisconsin. For the first time in Big Ten Tournament history, the Badgers will advance to the finals. The Badgers had made the semifinals twice previously since the tournament's inception six years ago, in 1999 and 2000, and lost both times to Michigan State.
"It shows that we're learning," Harris said. "The past few years, we haven't really played well, but this year, we've [gotten] the hump off our back with that first win and we continued to play well and do the things that we needed to do to win the games."
Wisconsin will need to put together a stellar performance one more time this weekend, as the Badgers face No. 1 seed Illinois (24-5) Sunday afternoon.
"They're definitely playing real well right now," Wilkinson said. "I mean, the guards are on a roll and when they're their toughest, all five guys are scoring. We're definitely looking forward to it. We need a little bit of rest tonight, but we're definitely looking forward to it. It should be a fun game and it will definitely be a challenge."
Photo gallery 1 – Matthew Kutz
Photo gallery 2 – Michael Conroy
Photo gallery 3 – Darron Cummings
Photo gallery 4 – Tom Strattman