Wisconsin’s run through the NCAA tournament ended Sunday afternoon with clutch free-throw shooting and timely field goals from North Carolina. Despite being written off by most national pundits, the Badgers hung with the highly touted Tar Heels for the majority of the two teams’ matchup before falling in the waning minutes.
“I’m so proud of these guys, I can’t even put it into words,” Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. “I haven’t been around a team that’s done what this group has done with what they’ve had (to work with). And, I’m telling you, this group was unbelievable.”
Sunday’s loss also marked the last time seniors Mike Wilkinson, Zach Morley, Sharif Chambliss, Clayton Hanson and Andreas Helmigk would ever suit up in a Badger uniform. In their farewell performance, Hanson and Wilkinson each reached double figures in scoring, with 15 and 11 points, respectively, while Chambliss chipped in with nine. Wilkinson also battled most of the game in the post with first-team all-ACC center Sean May.
Forward Alando Tucker did his part to send the winningest senior class in Wisconsin history out with a brilliant tournament performance. The sophomore standout anchored the Badger frontcourt Sunday with a 25-point performance in the post.
Tucker garnered a spot on the all-regional squad, along with Hanson, who poured in 15 points from the perimeter against the Tar Heels.
“The main thing is, we played for what’s on the front of our jerseys,” Tucker said. “We did that all year. That’s one thing we stuck to and that’s what made this such a great season. We just play for Wisconsin.”
Still, with the high-scoring exhibition, the Badgers also silenced critics who said the team could never match the ACC powerhouse in a pure shootout by sticking with a Tar Heel squad that rifled in 53.1 percent of their looks on the night.
“We kind of showed that we can play with anybody,” Wilkinson said. “We have a lot of great players on this team. They can all play and we’re not afraid to step on the court with anyone.”
Half a decade ago, almost to the mark, Wisconsin earned passage to the first Final Four appearance in school history by capping a near-impossible tournament run with a 64-60 win over Purdue in Albuquerque, N.M. The eighth-seeded Badgers posted landmark upsets over heavy favorites Louisiana State University and University of Arizona on their way to securing a spot in the final round of tournament action in Indianapolis.
When Wisconsin eventually fell in the Cinderella season of 2000, the team that trumped the Badgers in the Final Four — conference rival Michigan State — went on to claim the national title. This season, a large contingent of basketball fans and analysts similarly cite North Carolina, endowed with arguably the most talented cast in college hoops, as a favorite for the crown.