Jackson, Badgers ‘grateful’ to have point guard back on court

Badgers guard Traevon Jackson drives to the basket against North Carolina guard Joel Berry II during the second half in the semifinals of the west regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Staples Center.

Robert Hanashiro/Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sport

LOS ANGELES — In the waning seconds of Wisconsin’s 79-72 victory against North Carolina here Thursday night, Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson took a moment to survey the Staples Center arena and take in the feeling of it all.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past in which Jackson thought perhaps he would never play again in a Wisconsin uniform. He did not play in the team’s regular-season home finale as he had previously proclaimed he would to reporters because his broken right foot hadn’t yet healed. He did not play in the Big Ten tournament. He did not play in the first two NCAA tournament rounds despite being medically cleared to do so, and he acknowledged he had found peace with the idea his college career could end in street clothes.

So when Jackson graced the court at the end of Thursday’s victory, yes, he spent a second to reflect.

"I was grateful," Jackson said. "I had a moment at the end of the game, just looking around like, thank the Lord. I’m just blessed to be back out there. God has given me another opportunity."

Jackson made his first appearance for Wisconsin since Jan. 11 — a span of 20 games — and contributed four points with one assist, one rebound and one turnover in nine minutes. But his presence on the floor was far bigger than his stat line indicated.

One of the biggest concerns before Wisconsin began its NCAA tournament run was the lack of a consistent presence off the bench. And when Bronson Koenig picked up two first-half fouls against Oregon in the round of 32, it was evident that one missing link was not having a true point guard to spell him. Now, that problem is solved.

"Bronson’s been used to playing 40 minutes," Badgers forward Duje Dukan said. "The guy’s exhausted. Having Trae come back, that’s a guy that we’ve basically grown up with being a point guard for the last two years. So to have him back is definitely huge for us."

Jackson’s first stint on the floor lasted 2 minutes, 56 seconds, and it was memorable. He received a standing ovation from Wisconsin’s contingent of fans seated behind the bench when he checked in. On his first offensive possession, Jackson caught a kick-out pass on the right wing and knocked down a 3-pointer to give Wisconsin an early 9-6 lead with 14:37 remaining.

Badgers 79, Tar Heels 72

"That was amazing," Jackson said. "I was thinking buckets. Like, let’s go. I was excited."

Added Badgers forward Sam Dekker: "He had a well-deserved standing O, and people were waiting for him to come back. And Trae did what he does; he hit the 3 right away. He’s always one for the dramatic, so it was great to get him back out there."

After his first appearance on the floor, Jackson demonstrated the leadership that made him such a valuable piece to the team when he started 84 consecutive games. He huddled the Badgers out of a timeout to give them instructions, pulling Koenig aside before he went back on the court. Later, Jackson yelled toward Zak Showalter to be aggressive with the ball, and Showalter scored on a bucket right to the rim.

"Hearing things like that when Trae’s there, and just having Trae around is always good for our team because he’s such a leader vocally, so that helps a lot," Showalter said.

Jackson made his second appearance in the game after Koenig picked up his third foul with 16:09 remaining in the second half, and he entered twice more after Koenig tallied his fourth and fifth fouls. And it was exactly the lift Wisconsin needed to keep the offensive flow moving.

"You could definitely say that it was pretty much the perfect scenario, him giving me a blow because I was in foul trouble," Koenig said. "Just coming up with some big plays for us, so it was really good for him and his confidence."

Now, Jackson will earn at least one more opportunity to play when No. 1 seed Wisconsin plays No. 2 seed Arizona on Saturday in the Elite Eight. And the situation is not lost on him.

"You just have to stay ready and stay focused," Jackson said. "And also it’s playing with joy, being able to smile and being able to just have fun. That’s the biggest thing. I’ve just been taking it as it comes."

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