It was one of the best Sweet 16 games in the history of the NCAA Tournament.
The Wisconsin Badgers, the lone remaining Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament, provided college basketball fans with a thrilling comeback and lost a heartbreaker at the buzzer in overtime to the Florida Gators.
In was an incredible game, with a bevy of lead changes, and two last second shots in both regulation and overtime. The Badgers had all the momentum after senior guard Zac Showalter hit a three pointer with two seconds left to tie the game and send the game into overtime.
However, the Gators were not to be outdone, and junior guard Chris Chiozza hit a one handed floating three pointer of his own to give Florida the thrilling 84-83 win.
1. The Wisconsin seniors are a special group of players and people
The Badgers featured four seniors in their starting lineup: Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Vitto Brown, and Zac Showalter. This group of players have guided Wisconsin to an incredible four consecutive Sweet 16 appearances.
Despite an up and down season, these four players delivered when it mattered most, playing their best basketball of the season in the NCAA Tournament. Nigel Hayes led the way with 22 points and six rebounds, hitting big shots and getting vital second chances for Wisconsin throughout the second half.
Bronson Koenig continued his torrid shooting with 13 points and two huge three pointers in the last three minutes of regulation to put the Badgers in the situation to complete the comeback.
Vitto Brown and Zac Showalter were not big scorers during the season, but produced on college basketball’s biggest stage. Brown shot five of ten from long range in the last two games, and Showalter chipped in with 14 points, six rebounds, and four steals.
Besides being great players, they all embraced the media attention all season and chose to bring attention to social injustices throughout our country. Koenig celebrated his heritage as a member of Ho-Chunk Nation, and protested the Dakota Access Pipeline. His roommate, Nigel Hayes, has been very outspoken on NCAA players getting part of the revenue brought into the school as a result of their teams’ successes.
This group of Wisconsin players proved to be very special on and off the court.
2. “Don’t Give Up, Don’t Ever Give Up.”
Those great words uttered by former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, to a packed audience during the ESPY’s, are so applicable to every part of life. Valvano summed up his valiant cancer fight in those simple six words.
Tonight, the Badgers showed how much those words are true on the court as well. Wisconsin had multiple situations where they could have easily folded.
After jumping out to a 24-13 lead in the first half, the Badgers watched Florida chip away at their lead, and actually saw the Gators take a 34-32 halftime lead.
In the second half, the Gators took a quick ten point lead, 51-41, on a Kasey Hill jumper with under 15 minutes left to play. After Wisconsin took the lead back on a Nigel Hayes made free throw with 10 minutes left, the Gators went on yet another run to take a seemingly insurmountable 68-56 lead with 5:24 left.
The Badgers continued to fight, yet still trailed 72-64 with just 1:44 left in the game. But a Bronson Koenig three pointer, an Ethan Happ layup, and Showalter’s late game heroics took the game into overtime.
In the overtime, Wisconsin actually took a five point lead, 78-73 with just 1:40 left, but a couple clutch free throws from Canyon Barry and Chiozza’s game winning floater proved too much for Wisconsin to overcome.
At the beginning of the season, the Badgers seemed ready to fulfill all the expectations that were placed upon them by the analysts. A 21-3 overall start and strong 10-1 record in the conference gave all Wisconsin fans confidence that another Big Ten Championship was on the horizon.
However, losing five of six games in February raised question marks about just how good this Badgers’ team was. But a second place finish in the Big Ten conference, and a Sweet 16 run gave all the players, fans, and coaches a season to certainly be proud of.