In a span of just 19 seconds, a third straight trip to the Elite Eight slipped out of Wisconsin’s grasp and the team exited out of the 2016 NCAA Tournament in an agonizing fashion.
Wisconsin lost its Sweet Sixteen matchup in Philadelphia to Notre Dame Friday night, 61-56, in a turn of fortunes after the team’s buzzer-beater victory over Xavier in the round of 32.
Vitto Brown’s 3-pointer put the Badgers up 56-53 with 26 seconds left and had No. 7 seed Wisconsin poised to defeat No. 6 seed Notre Dame. But Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson dashed those hopes with a layup only five seconds later and then stole the ball from Nigel Hayes on the ensuing inbounds play, capped by scoring his second basket in five seconds.
The tiny span completely changed momentum, and when Wisconsin needed to step up most, they looked frazzled.
With the Badgers staring down a 1-point deficit and 14 seconds remaining, Bronson Koenig brought the ball over half-court and rushed past his defender, finding a lane to the basket. But two Notre Dame defenders closed on Koenig as he released a layup and their presence was enough to put Koenig’s shot off. Koenig’s momentum from evading the two caused the ball to come too hard off the glass, with the rebound falling to Notre Dame’s V.J. Beachem.
The miss sealed the Badgers’ fate and ended an otherwise respective 2015-16 season.
“We go from Vitto hitting the three to thinking we have a chance to have the game,” Hayes said. “And you blink your eyes and the next thing you know Jackson’s shooting two free throws and now we’re down five and now we’re going home. But that’s the price you pay when you play competitive sports.”
Throughout the game, offensive woes plagued the Badgers, who committed 17 total turnovers that stalled possessions and disrupted momentum. Many were unforced, simply the result of the Badgers not being on the same page when they needed to be, or individual players trying to do too much on their own.
The effect was Wisconsin shooting 40.4 percent on the night.
Hayes, who had an abysmal shooting performance in the first two games of the tournament by going 5-27, seemed to briefly snap out of his funk toward the end against the Fighting Irish. The junior hit two big threes down the stretch and finished 4-12, going 3-7 in the second half.
Redshirt freshman Ethan Happ proved to be the Badgers’ most potent weapon, but fouled out of the game with 46.5 seconds left. He was, however, able to score 14 points in his time on the court and take part in a stellar, team-effort on defense, which was aided by his 12 rebounds and two steals.
Notre Dame was held to shooting 40 percent but found luck getting to the line, which made all the difference in the end. The Fighting Irish’s 14 trips accounted for 13 points, compared to Wisconsin’s four points from free throws.
While their exit from the tournament wasn’t the most graceful, the Badgers had to overachieve just to get to this point, given how poorly they’d performed earlier in the season. But for as far as they’d come and grown, their poor ball possession, a lingering problem all season, proved to be Wisconsin’s Achilles heel.
“We wouldn’t have been here if you looked at a poll on Dec. 15,” UW head coach Greg Gard said. “We weren’t far enough along in the process; we weren’t mature enough. We had a lot of shoes to fill from last year. A lot of growing to do, and they’ve done that. I thought 17 turnovers, we deal with that. But I thought we never quite got to where we needed to get taking care of the ball all year.”
Despite the negative takeaways, Wisconsin’s defensive effort was a bright spot. They took the ball out of the Fighting Irish’s most dangerous scorers and frustrated them for much of the game with tight coverage.
Jackson, Notre Dame’s hero of the final minute, shot just 6-18 on the night and looked weak from the field.
With a solid core of young players who were inexperienced going into the tournament, valuable experience was gained in Philadelphia and St. Louis despite the abrupt end.
Gard and most of his players return next season, potentially including Hayes, and the uphill battle that was 2015-16 is hopefully behind the team. Wisconsin may finally be past its learning curve.
The emergence of Happ, Brown and Khalil Iverson, along with the return of Koenig, Zak Showalter and hopefully Hayes points to a promising 2016-17 season. Wisconsin’s entire starting lineup will be on the court for a second year, this time knowing the intricacies of each other’s play.
All in all, what’s on the horizon for Wisconsin looks good. Perhaps the end to next season won’t sting as much as the loss to Notre Dame did.