"Getting to this point in the tournament there are a lot of teams that would love to be in our shoes," senior guard Clayton Hanson said, tears welling in his eyes. "We are proud of our accomplishments. It is just hard to have that perspective right now."
The University of Wisconsin men's basketball team played out the tune for the 2004-05 season as long as it could, overcoming potentially calamitous obstacles to defy expectation after expectation, until a road block in Carolina blue got in the way, nipping the Badgers at the finish line, 88-82, in the Syracuse Regional final.
"We gave everything we had," senior forward Zach Morley said.
There was no shame in losing to top seeded North Carolina Sunday. No. 6 seed Wisconsin played an excellent game, matching the Tar Heels basket for basket until the very end.
After reaching the Elite Eight and tying a program record for wins (25) in a season, this UW team has every reason to hold its head high — and every reason to long for one more game to play.
"It was an awesome game to play in," Hanson said. "Just the stage and what was at stake that's what you prepare for all year. We put ourselves in that position. Unfortunately it didn't turn out the way we wanted."
Wisconsin and North Carolina battled back and forth, a 16-0 run giving UW a second half lead, and 14-0 UNC run taking it away. Each team played decent defense, but watched each other knock down shot after shot. UNC shot 53 percent from the floor, 31 percent on 3s and 83 percent on free throws; UW connected on 49 percent of its shots, 46 percent of its 3s and 85 percent at the line.
In the end, the Tar Heels had too much Sean May. The 6-foot-9, 260-pound center scored a game-high 29 points and grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds, including five offensive.
"He's a great player," said UW senior forward Mike Wilkinson, who defended May for most of the game. "He uses his body well. He gets it down [in the post] he's almost unstoppable."
May overpowered Wilkinson and finished his opportunities, hitting 13 of 19 shots.
"Rashad [McCants] told me before the game, ‘there is no way he'll be able to guard you, he's too little,'" May said. "I just tried to use that as motivation to get deep in the paint."
May did just that and the Tar Heels also received big contributions from McCants' 21 points and Raymond Felton's 17.
Unable to stop UNC, the Badgers simply made shots right along side the Heels. Alando Tucker was nearly dominant enough to lead UW to victory, scoring 25 points, two shy of his career high.
Clayton Hanson added 15 on 5 of 8 3-point shooting and Wilkinson pitched in 11 and a team-high seven rebounds. Kammron Taylor scored six of his 18 points in the midst of an 11-0 UW run to close out the first half, tying the game at 44-44.
"I know a lot of people were probably surprised the game was tied at halftime," Taylor said. "We were right there with them. Coming out of halftime the score is basically 0-0."
Tucker completed the Badgers' 16-point swing with a 3-point play and a pair of free throws, giving UW a 49-44 lead with 17:42 left to play, its first edge since a 5-4 margin less than two minutes into the game.
UNC, though, responded with eight unanswered points in just 49 seconds. After a May 3-point play, UW point guard Sharif Chambliss got caught in a trap in the back court and threw an errant pass to UNC's Jackie Manuel, who intercepted it, leading to a transition 3-pointer for Rashad McCants. Moments later McCants capped the run with a reverse layup.
After a minute-and-a-half interlude, UNC was at it again, scoring six points in 35 seconds to close the 14-0 rally.
"That's what we have to do," Felton said of the run. "Teams are going to make their runs. Every team at this point is going to be great teams."
UW, though, refused to break, and closed the lead to one point twice in the last seven minutes. They could not manage to get over the hump, however.
"We were right there and it just seemed like every thing we did to their credit they had an answer to and we just couldn't quite turn the corner," Hanson said.
The Badgers finish their season at 25-9.