Philadelphia – They were the guys wouldn’t go away. The Wisconsin Badgers made the Final Four in 2014, played for the NCAA title in 2015 and were 16 seconds from the Elite Eight this time. All they had to do was not mess up and make their free throws.
They messed up. They never shot another free throw. They lost.
The team that stunned No. 2 seed Xavier on Sunday was itself stunned by sixth-seeded Notre Dame here Friday. Credit the Irish for digging in on defense, which is unusual for them. This was the bunch that played a zone against Georgia Tech with the game on the line and wound up turning loose Marcus Georges-Hunt for the winning four-footer, which should never happen against a zone.
But that was a regular-season game in February, and this was the Big Dance. This time Notre Dame forced Wisconsin’s two returning starters from last season’s NCAA runner-up into unthinkable errors. First Nigel Hayes, who scored the second-biggest basket in the upset of unbeaten Kentucky last April, halted dribbling in backcourt when double-teamed by Demetrius Jackson and Bonzie Colson. Hayes tried to dribble through the trap. He didn’t make it.
Jackson stripped Hayes off the dribble and deposited the go-ahead layup. Then Bronson Koenig rushed downcourt and missed on a drive. After V.J. Beachem made two free throws, the Badgers had a last chance to tie. Koenig was divested of possession by Jackson at midcourt. Depending on your perspective, this was either a grand display of grit by the Irish or a massive Wisky choke.
The best part about this East Regional semi was that the game was close. The first five Sweet Sixteen games had been decided by double figures, which shouldn’t happen this deep into an NCAA tournament, especially one where parity was supposed to hold sway. But Notre Dame-Wisconsin was never in danger of turning into a blowout, mostly because neither side was good enough to distance itself.
The halftime score was 23-19, which seemed a relic from the days when Dick Bennett, Tony’s dad, was coaching the Badgers. The Irish are usually sleek on offense, but they’d been pulled into a slog. Jackson missed six of seven first-half shots. The Irish as a team were seven of 29 from the field. That’s 24.1 percent. At this level of basketball, a half that wretched usually gets you beat.
Wisconsin led by nine in the first half and by eight in the second. When it got close inside the final five minutes, the Badgers had answers – a Hayes trey, a Hayes follow, a Vitto Brown trey off a Hayes feed. They had a three-point lead with 20 seconds remaining. They lost 61-56. If it wasn’t quite Northern Iowa blowing a 12-point lead with 35 seconds remaining, it was still pretty horrid.
For Notre Dame, this makes two Elite Eights running. Last year the Irish nearly felled Kentucky in the Midwest final. This year’s team isn’t as good – it has lost 11 games – but it’s still in with a chance. And if Notre Dame does nothing else this tournament, it made the guys who wouldn’t go away go away.