Unheralded reserves Koenig, Dukan nearly helped Badgers to win

Badgers forward Duje Dukan scored eight points in Saturday's Final-Four loss to Kentucky, including two 3-pointers.

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ARLINGTON, Texas — If the shot drops and Wisconsin wins, the story of heroes shifts dramatically. 

If Traevon Jackson buries the pull-up jumper Saturday night as time expires, he is revered as the most clutch shooter in Badgers history. Meanwhile, the performances of reserves Bronson Koenig and Duje Dukan to keep Wisconsin close then become more than afterthoughts.

Alas, Jackson’s shot banged off the backboard and the rim, ending Wisconsin’s hopes of a national championship in the semifinal with a 74-73 loss to Kentucky. And what likely will be lost in the shuffle because of it were the bursts of scoring and energy provided by two players who averaged less than 16 minutes per game all season.

"We took a couple guys off the bench to spark us," Badgers guard Ben Brust said, "and that’s what you’re going to get in the Final Four in April."

First came the heroics of Koenig, a freshman guard from La Crosse, Wis., with as much natural talent as any player coach Bo Ryan has ever recruited. During the first half, Koenig checked in less than four minutes into the game because Jackson picked up two early fouls.

Koenig immediately made his impact felt offensively with a layup that tied the game at 7-7. A minute later, he buried a pull-up jumper off a crossover near the top of the key. In all, he made 4 of 9 first-half field-goal attempts and took four more shots than anybody else on the team. His last bucket, a 3-pointer from the left wing, gave Wisconsin a 28-22 lead with 7:08 left in the opening frame.

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Koenig finished with his third-highest point output of the season. And for the first half, many observers didn’t hesitate to point out that he looked better than any of Kentucky’s heralded freshmen on the court.

"After I got that layup in transition and I hit that next shot, I felt really comfortable out there," Koenig said. "I kind of just blocked out the crowd. Didn’t really think about it."

A year ago, Michigan guard Spike Albrecht scored 17 first-half points during the national championship game against Louisville, vaulting him onto the national college basketball map from seemingly out of nowhere. Albrecht even tweeted at supermodel Kate Upton afterward, which became a story itself. 

Koenig, sans the Upton shout out, appeared headed for a similar path into the national consciousness. But he did not score in the second half, while Dukan, a backup forward from Deerfield, Ill., gathered some of the spotlight for himself. 

Dukan had not scored more than seven points since the season opener against St. John’s back on Nov. 8 — a string of 37 games. Yet in the span of 2 minutes, 42 seconds, he tallied eight points, including two 3-pointers, against Kentucky. His last 3 put Wisconsin ahead, 56-55, with 11:52 left. 

It was a lead the Badgers would hold until the final three minutes.

"It was obviously good," Dukan said. "I want to help the team in any way possible. To get the opportunity to go out there and hit a couple shots and help the guys out and kind of bring that confidence and hopefully rally the troops, kind of get this team back on track and get the game in our favor. But at the end of the day, obviously it wasn’t enough. It’s tough."

Koenig finished the season averaging 15.5 minutes and 3.5 points per game. Dukan closed the year averaging 8.1 minutes and 2.8 points. Both players will return next season, part of a group that brings back seven of the top eight rotation players.

Sometimes, a team needs help from unexpected sources to make a run at something special. The combination of Koenig and Dukan nearly provided that lift, even if their performances may be lost to history.

"We’re a resilient bunch," Dukan said. "We’re never going to give up. We’ve shown that throughout the year. We can come back from deficits. Obviously, basketball is a game of runs. We knew we were going to make a run at some point. At the end of the day, we came up short."

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