The Wisconsin Badgers are moving on to the Sweet Sixteen this year, after besting Oregon in one of the most exciting games of the NCAA Tournament thus far. It wasn't always pretty, but Wisconsin's hot second half gave them the victory in the end.
In the first half, Oregon was crazy efficient offensively. We knew going into this game that they would play wildly and aggressively, but no one expected their shots to fall in the way that they did. They were led by Jason Calliste and Joseph Young, who both had career days. Calliste finished with 20 points, including 11-11 from the foul line, and Young dropped 29, with 4 three pointers. But no matter how hot they started, it always seemed like their shooting success would end up catching up with them. Pull-up jumpers in transition and threes early in the shot clock aren't the most sustainable offense.
Wisconsin was able to keep the first half close, but Oregon dominated the first half. They ran the Badgers out of the gym, especially on the fast break. They had 19 fast break points in the first half, compared to Wisconsin's 2. In addition, Oregon's defensive pressure made Wisconsin very uncomfortable offensively. They were stressing and forcing bad passes, which led to iffy shots. There were stretches where Oregon's aggressive defense failed them, because they bit on so many pump-fakes. But Wisconsin never wound up taking control of the first half.
The end of the first half was a worst-case scenario for the Badgers. Oregon stretched the lead to 14 at one point after a Bo Ryan technical foul. The crowd at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee was 95% Wisconsin fans, and they were not happy with the Badgers' first half performance. Neither was I.
But once the second half started, nothing was the same. The first 5 minutes of the second half were probably the best Wisconsin has played all year. After a tough first half, Traevon Jackson came on super strong and led the Badger comeback. They were able to feed the ball into Frank Kaminsky down low, who continued his amazing season as a starter. Kaminsky ended with 19 points, and boy, is he dangerous. Few players in the country have the height and quickness to guard him. It's amazing to see the difference in Kaminsky's ability to drive the lane from earlier in the year. Now, he's quick with his spins and always turns those drives into efficient offensive possessions. He's so good.
After a Kaminsky three to trim Oregon's lead to 55-54, the Bradley Center exploded. While Oregon kept responding with some crazy threes by Mike Moser and company, Wisconsin wasn't going away. Ben Brust made 3 of his 4 total three-pointers in the second half, and they all were huge. In fact, his final three that gave Wisconsin a 77-75 lead with just over a minute left set the record for most career threes in Wisconsin Badgers history. Atta way, Ben.
The possession that ended in the Brust three proved Wisconsin's determination in the second half. That possession had 3 total offensive rebounds, including one by Dekker that was truly acrobatic. While Dekker didn't wow offensively outside of a sweet dunk, he was active on the boards and helped match Oregon's energy. I mean, look at that dunk.
Traevon Jackson, my favorite human ever, helped seal the victory for the Badgers with some clutch free throws. He's had a tough season in the eyes of Wisconsin fans, and I didn't want a poor Traevon performance in a potential loss to feed the haters' fire. But his rocky first half transitioned into an excellent second half. Like it or not, Wisconsin will live and die on the back of Traevon Jackson. I'm choosing to live.
With that, Wisconsin moves onto the Sweet Sixteen. They will face either Creighton or Baylor on Thursday night. This victory proves the legitimacy of this team. Last year's team would lose this game every time. Without a doubt. But this year's team is different. They can score in bunches very quickly, both inside and out.
Here's to a potential Wisconsin tournament run.