BUFFALO, NY — A few weeks ago, some disgruntled Wisconsin fans actually were calling for second-year coach Greg Gard’s head after the Badgers turned in lackluster losing performances against the likes of Ohio State and Iowa. Their once-promising season seemed on the brink of total collapse down the stretch of the Big 10 regular season.
This afternoon, with 5:07 remaining in a “Round of 32” game, and the Badgers trailing by 7 points, it looked like their season was over notwithstanding a valiant effort against the defending NCAA Champs. After all, stars Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ were both saddled with foul trouble, and Villanova, led by superstar senior guard Josh Hart (19 pts) and freshman sensation guard Donte DiVincenzo (15 pts), was pulling away for the kill.
But, the battle-tested Badgers weren’t yet ready to depart the dance. They rallied behind their senior leaders.
With ice water in his veins, Koenig (17 pts, 2-6 3-pt) drilled a 3-pointer to put the Badgers up 62-59 late. However, a bad exchange between Koenig and senior forward Nigel Hayes resulted in a turnover allowing the Wildcats to pull even at 62.
Then, the “play of the game!” Coming out of a time-out, Hayes (19 pts, 8 rebounds) drove the baseline and made a spectacular “Michael Jordan type” reverse layup to put the Badgers up 64-62 with 11.4 seconds to go. But, the champs were’t ready to go down. 11.4 seconds is an eternity in March Madness.
Villanova got the ball to Hart who, with Koenig and Happ having to play off with four fouls apiece, drove for a sure-fire tying layup. But, he didn’t count on Badger senior forward Vito Brown, who had broken out of a severe shooting slump by draining 3 of 6 three pointers. Brown stripped Hart, and then was fouled on the play with 3.4 seconds remaining.
Brown hit the first free throw (insuring the Badgers at least a tie). After missing the second, he hustled down to the baseline to help Hayes bottle up Villanova and prevent any chance of a last second shot as time ran out. Brown, a talented singer, also performed (pre-recorded) during the NCAA/CBS TV “lead in” to today’s game!
The #8 seed Badgers had triumphed! Amid the heroics of Hayes, Koenig, and Brown, the great effort by Happ, who added a huge 12 points and 8 rebounds despite playing most of the game in foul trouble and senior Zach Showalter who had several key defensive plays should not be forgotten.
The classy Wildcats and their even classier coach Jay Wright finish the season at 32-4. And, at least for the next week so, the voices in Madison calling for Greg Gard’s ouster have been silenced.
The Badgers thus head for their fourth consecutive “Sweet 16,” their sixth in seven seasons. The Badgers (27-9) will take on the #4 Florida Gators (26-8) from the SEC in Madison Square Garden, NY. “Badgers v. Gators” — a match of two of the most dangerous and ferocious animals known to man (forget that “smiling Teddy-bear version” of Bucky that I post below. That’s just to throw Bucky’s opponents off.) Game time is 10:00 PM Friday on TBS, with a trip to the “Elite Eight” at stake. Don’t miss it!