JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In Friday’s early session of first-round games, Team A defeated Team B 78-65 while Team C beat Team D 53-49. The winners were No. 4 seed Wisconsin and No. 12 seed Cornell. Now which team won by 13 and which barely escaped by four?
One would expect Cornell, which upset fifth-seeded Temple, to be the team that barely got by while the Badgers won easily over the Terriers. Yet, it was in fact, just the opposite.
It didn’t go the way most people expected, but Wisconsin got past Wofford in their first-round match-up Friday, downing the Terriers 53-49 in a game that went down to the wire. Fittingly, Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan sounded more like his team had just pulled off an upset after the game than a head coach who had just secured his 600th career victory.
“Fortunately, we had a few more than they did, but I give them a lot of credit,” Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. “(Wofford head coach) Mike (Young) has done an unbelievable job. That team, those guys are winners. They just win. And fortunately, we were able to get one today on them.”
Leading up to Friday’s game, the most talked about aspect of the match-up was the way the Badgers and Terriers were almost mirror images of one another. In the first half, that was true in a way. Wofford looked a lot like the Wisconsin team that shot 18.2 percent from the floor a week earlier against Illinois at the Big Ten tournament.
The Terriers shot just 28 percent from the floor, hitting 7-of-25 attempts en route to 19 points, five of which came at the free-throw line.
While the Badgers did not come out on fire, they shot better than Wofford, hitting 10-of-29 attempts, or 34.5 percent. It was not pretty, but it was enough to get UW to the locker room with a 27-19 lead.
In the first half for Wisconsin, the key was senior guard Trevon Hughes, who scored 14 of the team’s 27 points. Hughes finished with just five more points, giving him 19 points on the afternoon, one shy of the game-high 20 points scored by junior forward Jon Leuer.
The difference between the halves, according to Hughes, was the Terriers’ interior defense.
“I felt like the driving lane was open a lot more in the first half,” he said. “And in the second half, they made an adjustment and they sagged in the paint and they forced us to hit some jump shots.”
Of course, the second half was when the game got interesting.
Coming out of the locker room, Wofford used a 12-4 run to tie the game just three-and-one-half minutes in. The Terriers extended that run to 17-8, giving them their first lead since it was 6-4 early in the first half.
Junior forward Jamar Diggs, a 6-foot-2 native of Minneapolis, keyed that run for Wofford, scoring nine of the Terriers’ first 12 points in the half. The remaining three came on a shot from beyond the arc by senior guard Junior Salters on an assist from Diggs.
Wisconsin sophomore forward Jordan Taylor, who played with Diggs, junior guard Cameron Rundles and junior forward Noah Dahlman in AAU ball, was not surprised by the performance of the Diggs. In fact, he said that Diggs, along with Rundles were much the same as they have been since they played together in Minnesota.
“They’ve been good players ever since then (and) they’ve been emotional emphatic players ever since then,” Taylor said. “They haven’t changed much; they’ve obviously gotten better.”
After Wofford led 38-37 with 14 minutes to go in the game, the two teams scored only 10 points apiece over the next 12 minutes of play. But with two minutes remaining, a layup by Hughes put the Badgers back on top 49-48.
Seconds later, a free throw by junior forward Terry Martin evened the score at 49, setting up yet another thrilling finish on this opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
One minute later, Hughes found Leuer in the left corner. With 17 seconds remaining, the 6-foot-10 forward drained the long 2-point jumper, putting Wisconsin up for good at 51-49. Thirteen seconds later, Leuer added a pair of free throws, sealing the UW victory.
Afterward, the Badgers’ two stars discussed the play.
“Basically, I was looking to get into the paint, try to draw some guys in, and actually his guy sagged off into the paint,” Hughes said. “So he was open. I had to hit the open man — I can’t be selfish — and he knocked the shot down.”
Leuer was just happy to get the win.
“When Pop (Hughes) was dribbling up at the top, we kind of made eye contact and just kind of let me know if my guy hopped off he was going to be looking for me,” Leuer said. “So, I was just fortunate to knock it down, and we got to advance.”