CHICAGO — Colorful strands of confetti dropped from high above, fluttering across the United Center court. White hats and red T-shirts emblazoned with “Big Ten champion” emerged from cardboard boxes, and a celebration for winning the toughest conference tournament in college basketball finally began late Sunday afternoon.
It was a scene Wisconsin’s players had desperately craved for themselves, and the team’s determined play the past two days suggested an unlikely joy ride to a championship was within its grasp. But as the music blared and the makeshift podium rolled to mid-court, the Badgers were nowhere to be found. They had shuffled off, underneath the yellow rope surrounding the court and into the locker room.
An exhausting, demanding three-day run against three top-10 teams had come to a close in disappointing fashion. No. 10 Ohio State out-toughed No. 22 Wisconsin in the final minutes to escape with a 50-43 victory and capture the Big Ten championship, sending the trophy back to Columbus for the third time in four seasons.
Ohio State, seeded No. 2 in the Big Ten tournament, was supposed to be here. Wisconsin, the No. 4 seed, was not. Yet the Badgers had crashed the title game party anyway by beating Michigan and Indiana on consecutive days. The Wolverines entered the weekend ranked sixth in the country and the Hoosiers third. Both teams were favored in matchups against Wisconsin.
Perhaps those two stirring victories helped soften the blow for Wisconsin back in the locker room following Sunday’s game because the overriding mood was positive despite the loss. The Badgers had sought a championship and didn’t get it, but they had proven something to a nation in the process about their toughness and ability to withstand pressure in a tournament setting.
“I’m just proud of our guys that they were able to put themselves in this position,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “If somebody would have told me, ‘OK coach, you get Michigan, Ohio State and Indiana, and we’ll give you two out of three,’ I think I’d have taken it. You always want that last one. But I thought our guys fought pretty hard. That’s three grueling days right there.”
If nothing else, the weekend run helped prepare the Badgers for what lies ahead. Wisconsin (23-11) earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament when the brackets were revealed Sunday evening and will play No. 12 Mississippi (26-8) on Friday in Kansas City, Mo. Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State earned 1, 2 and 3 seeds, respectively.
“Last two days, we beat Michigan and Indiana,” Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz said. “That’s like a Sweet 16 game, honestly. It had the feel of an NCAA tournament game. You’re playing in an arena just like this. We’ve just got to move on, get this taste out of our mouth.
“We played well, did our thing this weekend. Obviously, we didn’t like the result. We’ve got to make sure we get our heads focused. Now it’s one-and-done and you’re over. We want to make sure we stay playing for three more weeks.”
Wisconsin very nearly pulled out a third victory in three days, which surely would have ranked among the most impressive accomplishments of Ryan’s 12-year tenure. When Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker converted a reverse layup in transition with 7:03 remaining in the game, the Badgers took a 41-39 lead. But Dekker’s field goal would be the last of the game for the Badgers, whose only two points the rest of the way came on Traevon Jackson’s free throws.
Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft gave Ohio State the lead for good at 43-41 with 5:30 left, and the Badgers faltered from there. They missed their final six shots from the field and turned the ball over twice. Not even their trademark defensive tenacity could make up for not scoring.
Wisconsin guard Ben Brust missed a 3-pointer from the left wing with 1:37 remaining that would have trimmed the deficit to one. Bruesewitz’s 3 from right of the key then rattled out with 58 seconds left, and the celebration for Ohio State (26-7) was imminent.
“We thought we were going to get another one,” Dekker said. “We thought we were going to win this game. We had a lead most of the night and let it slip away. We’re a confident bunch. This one stings, but come tomorrow we’ve got to be ready for our next opponent.”
Wisconsin’s players stayed to watch the selection show inside the United Center, returning to the locker room for more interviews and finally boarding a bus headed back to Madison. They didn’t exit with the trophy, net strands, hats and T-shirts they wanted, but they were leaving with the belief that they could play with any team in the country as the NCAA tournament neared.
As consolation prizes go, the Badgers could do a whole lot worse.
“Our guys earned a trip,” Ryan said. “Let’s see what we can do with it.”