KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Wisconsin players wiped tears from their eyes and stared blankly into the locker room walls, emotions consuming any room for words.
This was the unceremonious aftermath of the fifth-seeded Badgers dropping their opening game of the NCAA tournament, 57-46, to 12th-seeded Mississippi Friday afternoon at the Sprint Center. But a surprising loss that brought so many tears and faces filled with utter dejection had a simple and familiar explanation: Wisconsin could not sink its open shots.
After a quiet first half offensively in which the Badgers shot 30.4 percent from the field and nearly the exact same percentage from three-point territory, it seemed that UW had dodged a bullet. Despite the lack of offensive production, the Badgers still owned a three-point lead at the halftime break.
But a dismal 21-point second half effort, the result of 22.2 percent shooting from the field and a 17.6 percent conversion rate from beyond the arc in the final 20 minutes, could not keep Wisconsin’s pulse pumping.
“It’s the NCAA tournament, we have a drought like this and can’t put the ball in the hoop, it’s the worst time for that to happen,” freshman forward Sam Dekker said. “[By] the end of the year, you think those things are going to be corrected, but I’ve said it all year, there’s peaks and valleys to a basketball season and we hit one of those valleys today.”
The ice-cold shooting from the field was not a one-game fluke that appeared without prior warning at the season’s most pivotal point. Scoring droughts like the one that lasted just more than four minutes and allowed the Rebels to take a six-point lead in in the final minutes of Friday’s game were reflective of a season-long trend.
The Badgers finished the afternoon 15-of-59 (25.4 percent) from the field, their worst shooting performance in 35 games this season.
“It’s not a team that really shot the ball well all year,” UW head coach Bo Ryan said. “It happened again.”
As forward Ryan Evans — one of five seniors who stepped off the floor in a Wisconsin uniform for the final time at the Sprint Center Sunday — said, UW knew its defense compensates for a few painful stretches where the ball refused to fall through the bottom of the net. Yet on Friday, when the Badgers’ most efficient shooter was Sam Dekker, who finished 5-of-13 from the field, even the most suffocating defense could not make up for an offense that never found its groove.
Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz — the three seniors who see regular time on the court — combined to shoot 5-of-22, often settling for outside looks.
Thirty of the Badgers’ 59 shots as a team, in fact, came from beyond the three-point arc. It marked a reversion to relying on three-point shooting to win games, an approach that faded in last weekend’s Big Ten tournament but returned with a vengeance in a second half where UW jacked up 17 three-pointers.
Despite the lack of offense, there were still opportunities to assume control in the second half and send the Rebels back to Oxford. With Wisconsin holding onto a six-point lead and 11:49 left in the second half, the Badgers were perfectly positioned to score a few quick buckets and mount a double-digit lead.
But sophomore guard Traevon Jackson missed three consecutive shots as Rebels guard Marshall Henderson answered with two quick three-pointers. They marked his first two three-point baskets of the game after Henderson missed his first six tries and the lead had evaporated.
“I felt like we were getting pretty good looks,” Berggren said. “I know with all the threes that I took besides the last one in the corner, (which) was kind of out of desperation, all the other ones were wide open. I was squared up, they all felt good coming off. They just rimmed out or came off the mark, so it was frustrating.”
That frustration was amplified by the moment, none bigger than the game’s final 1:47, the Badgers within four after Jackson sunk a pair of free throws. As Ole Miss added to its lead at the free throw line, Wisconsin missed its final seven shots, six of them three-pointers. Although some of the later tries turned into desperation heaves as the Rebels pulled away, it was a fitting end for a game — and a season — defined by a lack of offensive consistency.
Bo Ryan’s offense had found an open Ben Brust squared up behind the three-point line. Jackson had opportunities to hit his signature mid-range jumpers a step or two into the paint. The Ole Miss defense, players agreed, had done nothing miraculous to slow UW’s offensive production.
“I think the numbers kind of show it, when we struggled we just shot the ball poorly,” Berggren said.” It’s hard to pinpoint a reason why. I know we have guys that put in the time and the hard work, but sometimes you don’t really get out of it what you put in and it’s tough at this point to swallow it.”
Old habits, it turned out, truly are hard to break. And for Wisconsin, they returned at the worst possible moment costing them the chance at a third consecutive run to the Sweet Sixteen.