Badgers put late-season scuffle behind them
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MADISON--With his team in the midst of an ugly stretch that included five losses in six Big Ten games, Wisconsin coach Greg Gard noted the stress would toughen the players if they could work through the stretch and remain confident.
UW’s scintillating 65-62 victory over top-seeded Villanova on Saturday in the second round of the NCAA East Regional showed Gard’s words to be prophetic.
“Just so excited and proud of these guys,” Gard said after UW advanced to the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season. “Because they’ve had to battle through a lot this year as we’ve worked and grown through the season together.”
That growth has No. 8 UW (27-9) in the NCAA Tournament regional semifinals against No. 4 Florida (26-8) Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York, with the tip-off time to be announced Sunday night.
UW associate head coach Lamont Paris, in his seventh season on the staff, said the growth was evident during the comeback against Villanova, particularly during a timeout in the final minute.
“The stuff being said by our seniors about what needed to be done,” Paris said. “We’re coaches. We’re supposed to tell them what needs to be done.
“But when those guys are looking at each other in the eyes and telling people what needs to be done and how to do it, then our jobs are made easy.
“We’re just along for the ride. We push a couple buttons here and there.
“And those are changes. Those are things we didn’t see as much earlier in the year, even when we were winning games.”
Seniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, who combined for 44 points in UW’s first-round victory over Virginia Tech, combined for 13 of UW’s final 15 points against Villanova.
“I aspire to be like those guys when I get older,” redshirt sophomore Ethan Happ said. “B keeps making big shot after big shot. Nigel had big plays throughout the game, but that isolation when he scored that lay-up was huge for us.”
Hayes and Koenig combined for 36 points in the victory over Villanova, on 15-for-26 shooting.
Koenig scored 8 of his 17 points after he returned to the lineup, with four fouls, with 5 minutes 43 seconds remaining.
“It’s just never losing poise, never getting rattled,” Koenig said when asked about UW’s ability to wipe out a 57-50 deficit. “That is something we’ve talked about throughout the tournament. It is something we take pride in.”
Zak Showalter, a fifth-year senior who redshirted the year Koenig and Hayes were key freshmen reserves on UW’s 2014 Final Four team, is ready to follow the leaders.
“We’re going to ride them as far as they take us,” he said. “And these last couple games they’ve been playing their best basketball. That is what we need and that is when as a team we play our best basketball.
“I’ve got the utmost confidence in those two guys to make plays down the stretch, and tonight was just another reinforcement of that."
The losses during that stretch from Feb. 12 to March 2 were painful and included an ugly seven-point defeat to Northwestern; a 10-point road loss to a bad Ohio State team; and a two-point loss to visiting Iowa, which overcame a nine-point deficit in the final 4:01.
UW ended the slide with a 66-49 thumping of Minnesota in the regular-season finale, which started a streak of five victories in six games.
Did the players see the turnaround coming?
“Yes,” Hayes said emphatically. “Because we know how good we can be. All the film we watch … we told you guys a million times that if we just do the little things better and played more complete games that we’d be able to compete with anybody in the country.
“That’s what we said before the season. That’s what we said during the losing streak. That is what we said during the winning streaks.
“If we play disciplined basketball, we can win games.”
Defeating a Villanova team with key players back from the team that won the national title last season offered proof.
"Regardless of what their record is, those guys are winners at a high, high level," Paris said of Villanova. "Obviously, the national championship last year.
"They have high expectations. They produced again this year. They’ve got the bulk of their lineup back. They’ve got All-Americans. They’ve got a great coach. They are winners.
"So to impose your will against a team like that, certainly that’s impressive. … I came in the locker room and I wanted to give them a round of applause."