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DEREK MONTGOMERY/Herald photo

In the heat of action of Semifinal Saturday at the United Center, the stage was set for a heroic performance.

Fresh off an upset of Michigan State, Iowa stars Jeff Horner and Greg Brunner looked to cement their NCAA tournament bid with a win over Wisconsin.

Heads turned to recently named Big Ten Player of the Year Dee Brown — hampered by a persistent toothache — to overcome the pain and break an ongoing offensive slump.

And finally, Minnesota slasher Vincent Grier became a focal point as his surprising Gophers aimed to close out their ongoing success story with an upset of the top-ranked Fighting Illini.

Yet, when the lights went out in Chicago, an off-balance walk-off trey by Badger swingman Alando Tucker proved the defining moment of the day and, for the cardinal and white, the entire 2004-05 season.

A week and a half after veritably shattering the bubble-dwelling Hoosiers’ tournament hopes with a last-second putback, the 6-foot-5 sophomore struck again at the buzzer to silence the insurgent Hawkeyes in the Badgers’ 59-56 semifinal win.

“Whatever it takes,” Tucker said. “If it takes shots like that to advance, we’re going to do that. You do anything. You pull a rabbit out of the hat, basically — anything it takes to advance.”

According to Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan — who regularly runs practice drills to prepare for such a scenario — the seemingly unlikely candidate to take the rock for a game-winning deep ball has frequently proved himself the best option.

Tucker said it all comes down to planning and instinct.

“We know how many dribbles you have prior to actually catching the ball,” Tucker said. “It’s quick, 3.8 seconds. That’s very fast. You just want to make sure it gets out of your hands in enough time, and I could just tell it [did].”

In recent weeks, the Wisconsin swingman has improved on many fields of his game that have caused him problems throughout the year. After struggling for much of the season with ball control, Tucker recorded just three turnovers in five games during the month of March. Additionally, his shooting from the charity stripe — a regular source of woe for the Badger standout — continues to improve. Since a notably poor free-throw shooting exhibition by the entire Badger squad in a 70-59 loss to Illinois Feb. 12, Tucker has stepped up for his part, posting a percentage of 76.3 from the line.

At the close of Wisconsin’s regular-season schedule, the dynamic swingman slipped past first-team all-Big Ten forward Mike Wilkinson as the team’s leading scorer. Averaging 14.9 points and 6.4 boards per game, Tucker leads all conference sophomores in both categories.

However, the fluidity of recent weeks hasn’t been indicative of Tucker’s season, or his career at Wisconsin, for that matter. Sidelined with a broken foot for the vast majority of last season, Tucker suffered more time on the bench this year with a pair of lingering injuries.

Overcoming problems with his lower-left leg, Tucker hit his stride in late December, reeling off a series of strong performances to lead the Badgers on a resurgence after a disappointing loss to in-state rival Marquette.

Shortly thereafter, Tucker found himself out of action with another foot injury, sustained in a comeback victory over Michigan State Jan. 16. After missing a number of games and pressing through several more in limited capacity, the sophomore returned to form by February, recording 11-straight double-digit point totals before Illinois brought that streak to an end in the Big Ten championship game Sunday.

“I’m feeling a lot better and able to explode to the rim,” Tucker said. “I’m feeling like to the point where I was (before the last injury).”

“You take for granted, sometimes, the little things that you have when you’re an athlete able and willing to go out on the court to play and give it your all,” he added. “A lot of guys don’t realize it’s that important. When I couldn’t do it, it was burning.”

Back at full speed, heading into the opening round of the NCAA tournament in Oklahoma City this weekend, a hungry Tucker is looking to make an impact after missing out on the 2004 Dance with a medical redshirt. While continuing to fill a role as a vocal leader on the Badger squad, he will finally receive the opportunity to contribute on the floor as well.

“I used to always love this time [of year],” Tucker said. “I remember this past tournament, talking to the team like — I’ll say it exactly: ‘This is the time when we were growing up that we used to see games on, and we used to watch the older guys play. Now we’re the guys that people are looking at.'”

As Wisconsin prepares to test its luck against arguably the toughest bracket in the tourney this year, all eyes will certainly be on Tucker.