"It feels great to be in the Elite Eight," senior guard Sharif Chambliss said, a wide smile across his face minutes after the sixth seeded Badgers came back from a second-half deficit for only the second time in eight tries this season, posting an astonishing 65-56 win over 10th seeded North Carolina State before a crowd of 30,713.
The Badgers were not expected to be playing in the Syracuse Regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament here, let alone winning their Sweet Sixteen matchup. Despite being the higher ranked seed, Wisconsin was supposed to be ripe for the Wolfpack's picking.
After a dreadful final 15 minutes of the first half, when UW's offense imploded, it certainly looked as if N.C. State would advance to the regional finals with relative ease.
UW, though, refused to buckle, jumping on the Wolfpack to open the second half and turning a nine-point halftime deficit into a 10-point lead before State knew what had hit them.
When the dust cleared the Badgers — the Badgers! — had advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and a date with top seeded North Carolina at 1:40 p.m. Sunday. The Tar Heels (30-4) survived a stiff challenge from Villanova (24-8) before prevailing 67-66, in the second semifinal here Friday night.
"I don't even know what to say," sophomore guard Kammron Taylor said. "I'm so happy right now. The way we came back, the way we gelled in the second half as a team. The way we came back, nobody got down. We just proved that when we play together we're a team to reckon with."
Say this: Wisconsin is one win away from the Final Four and is halfway to taking its one-game-at-a-time approach all the way to a national title.
"You've got to win six games, so we are looking forward to the fourth," UW coach Bo Ryan said.
It really should not come as a surprise that Wisconsin has again found hoops success, but after Devin Harris left for the NBA last spring, and Boo Wade left the team for personal reasons, leaving the Badgers with one returning starter, expectations dipped and flat lined.
But the Badgers have made a habit of writing their own plot lines this year and Friday was no exception.
"It's awesome. Just to be able to stay here and keep it alive for one more game," senior guard Clayton Hanson said. "We are just going to fight for everything and keep this thing going."
Wisconsin fought its way to its 25th win of the season Friday, tying a school record set just last season. At 25-8 the Badgers have now played more games than all but one team in school history: the 1999-2000 squad that made it to the Final Four.
UW has now played in three Sweet Sixteen games in the past six seasons, and has earned the right to play in the Elite Eight for the second time in that span.
"We know we can do it we just have to prove it," sophomore forward Alando Tucker said, addressing the criticism that has followed UW throughout this tournament. "We are going to earn our respect. We are going to make people respect us."
"It is just a great feeling," Chambliss said. "I can't stop smiling."
The Badgers received vital contributions from many sources Friday, but Tucker stood apart, leading UW's second half metamorphosis.
He attacked the basket from the opening tip, scoring five of UW's first seven points and eight points by halftime, to help the Badgers weather their error-prone opening.
But the 6-foot-5 sophomore forward was essentially unstoppable after halftime, when he scored 14 of his game-high 22 points. He negotiated the paint more or less at will, taking the game over as he scored eight unanswered points and 10 of 13 in a 13-0 Badger run, giving UW a commanding 47-37 lead it would not relinquish.
"I know I'm getting better at that, at being a leader out there on the court," Tucker said. "At times when we are down I have to put us up. I want to be that leader, I want to be that guy."
Tucker was certainly the man Friday.
"He's got a bright future ahead of him," Taylor said. "The way he played today, I'm just happy to be a part of it."
Mike Wilkinson's 17 points and five rebounds — despite sitting out nearly eight minutes in the first half with foul trouble — were also helpful, as was forward Zach Morley's 10 points and eight rebounds.
Wisconsin led 9-8 less than five minutes into the game but the Badgers scored just 12 points the rest of the first half as turnovers and missed shots mounted. N.C. State built a 30-21 lead at halftime.
"The first four minutes was Wisconsin basketball," Taylor said. "But those last 16 minutes wasn't Wisconsin basketball. We came in [at halftime], we got it together as a team. We went out there in the second half and played Wisconsin basketball."
The Badgers outscored N.C. State 44-26 in the second half.