Michael Flowers' last-minute heroics and Brian Butch's 19 points kept the sixth-ranked Badgers alive in their quest for a Big Ten sweep – the regular-season and tournament titles – with a 65-63 victory over No. 19 Michigan State in the conference tournament semifinals Saturday afternoon at Conseco Fieldhouse.
The top-seeded Badgers (28-4) stole a berth in the tournament finals Sunday against surprising Illinois – the conferene's No. 10 seed – overcoming a 12-point deficit in the final eight minutes.
"I don't think words will adequately describe what these guys did in the comeback," UW coach Bo Ryan said. "I really liked what these guys did on every possession. It was an extremely physical and tough game, but in the end our guys just managed to get one more possession."
Flowers drew a grueling defensive assignment in MSU guard Drew Neitzel, and the Spartan guard had 26 points to lead all scorers.
But after getting beat up all game, Flowers threw the last punch. With 30 seconds to go he stole Kalin Lucas' intended pass for Neitzel, drove the floor with the Spartan guard breathing down his neck, and skied for a layup to give the Badgers a 65-63 advantage – their largest lead of the game.
"I knew that toward the end of the game with a player like Drew Neitzel, they were looking for him," Flowers said. "I was over-pressuring him and the pass came. I tipped it, and just ran as fast as I could for the layup."
Neitzel had a chance to win the game with a three-point look at the buzzer, but he missed wide right and the buzzer sounded before anybody could get the rebound.
Neitzel scored 15 in the first half, but struggled in the second half with 1-for-5 three-point shooting. He had just three points in the final 9:55.
"I think in the second half, I did a really good job – way better than I did in the first half – of keeping the ball out of his hands," Flowers said. "That kind of disrupted the flow of their offense."
Butch, UW's leading scorer, had just one point against Michigan on Friday, but the senior center was much more effective against the Spartans, shooting 6-for-10 from the floor. Butch missed all seven shots against the Wolverines.
"Shots just dropped, that's all it was," said Butch, who added seven rebounds. "You have games like that where the ball just doesn't go in."
For a while, Saturday was one of those games for UW, shooting just 26 percent at the break. The Spartans pulled away with a 9-0 run early in the second half, and Lucas' three-pointer gave MSU a 53-41 lead with 8:13 to go.
Free-throw shooting hurt the Badgers early, but saved them late. UW made just six of its first 10 attempts, and shot just 70 percent for the game (26-for-37), but was 9-of-10 from the line during a 20-8 run in five and a half minutes that tied the game at 61-all with 2:25 remaining.
"I think it's just concentration," Butch said. "We know how important every free throw's going to be toward the end because we needed every point we could get."
Butch was just 5-for-9 from the line, but hit three consecutive shots after being fouled on a 3-point attempt to get the Badgers within seven points.
Most of those foul shots came courtesy of Michigan State players fouling out. Four different Spartans – three centers and MSU leading scorer, forward Raymar Morgan – fouled out in a span of 3:04, and the first three came within 56 seconds. Idong Ibok led the exodus to the bench, followed by Drew Naymick, Goran Suton, and then Morgan.
After Flowers' go-ahead layup, Lucas drove and missed an off-balance layup with ten seconds to go. Butch grabbed the rebound and passed off to UW guard Jason Bohannon, who was immediately fouled. Bohannon was the right man to have on the line – his school-record streak of 39 consecutive free throws made was ended yesterday – but the sophomore missed them both.
"I just missed two, that's going to happen," Bohannon said. "First one came off a little short, and the second one I tried to make up for a little too much. I've got to make up for it next game."
There was a scary moment for the Badgers when point guard Trevon Hughes hit the deck holding his left ankle in severe pain with 12:38 left in the game. He was on the court for a few minutes, and was helped to the locker room with assistance from UW trainers.
"With Trevon Hughes out, that blow was huge," Flowers said. "We really came together as a team and we picked each other up. That's something that can't be taught, it has to be ingrained intrinsically in the players."
The Badgers never trailed during their win over Michigan on Friday, but the inverse was true for most of Saturday's affair against the Spartans. Other than the 27 seconds after Flowers' shot, the Badgers only led for one minute late in the first half, when two Hughes free throws gave UW a 23-22 advantage.
Forward Marcus Landry had 18 points and nine rebounds for the Badgers, and Lucas scored 18 for the Spartans. UW forward Joe Krabbenhoft had a double-double, with 11 points (9-of-10 from the line) and a game-high ten rebounds.
"Luckily, this is a team, and nine people played and all contributed in their own way," Flowers said.