KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bo Ryan sat between two wooden panels in an oversized locker space, a shiny NCAA tournament pin still fastened to the lapel on his black suit jacket. He sipped a Powerade and sagged his shoulders. All the animation, the fist-pumping, the excessive clapping and screaming he had brought to the Wisconsin bench only a half-hour earlier had disappeared.
In its place, an uncomfortable calmness surfaced. Ryan, the Badgers’ 12th-year head coach, was resigned to his team’s fate. After Wisconsin’s worst performance of the season in its most important game, it was finally all over. No more practices remained for Ryan to strategize or maximize his players’ talent.
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No. 12 seed Ole Miss overwhelmed No. 5 seed Wisconsin in the final few minutes to escape with a 57-46 victory in a Round of 64 NCAA tournament game at Sprint Center on Friday afternoon. Seeding suggested it wasn’t supposed to end this soon for the Badgers, who lost in the opening round for just the second time under Ryan. Then again, given the maddening unpredictability of Wisconsin’s offense — and its frequent penchant to miss open shots — maybe expecting more was too much to ask.
Defense had kept the Badgers in games they shouldn’t have won all season. But as Ryan sat in the locker room, he couldn’t escape the most obvious flaw in this year’s team.
“It’s just a group that’s not a very good shooting team,” Ryan said. “I mean, we just weren’t all year. We had spurts. But they overcame that in a lot of games.”
Not on Friday. Not even during a game in which Wisconsin held Ole Miss to its fewest points all season.
Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson airballed consecutive shots in the lane as the game tightened in the second half. Center Jared Berggren looked tentative and unwilling to attack the basket. Guard Ben Brust, the team’s best 3-point shooter, missed 7 of 9 long-range attempts. Only forward Sam Dekker, who scored a team-high 14 points, made more than two shots.
It amounted to Wisconsin hitting just 15 of 59 shots from the field (25.4 percent) and groans from the school’s fan base emanating from behind the team bench. The Badgers’ previous worst outing this season was 29.4 percent shooting in a March 7 loss to Michigan State.
Although Friday’s result was particularly tormenting because of the do-or-die circumstances, it typified Wisconsin’s offensive issues all season. The Badgers (23-12) were lauded by pundits entering the NCAA tournament for their ability to win tough games without any so-called superstars, but that formula ultimately doomed them. Wisconsin shot 33.4 percent from 3-point range this season — the worst mark in Ryan’s tenure — and added to the misery by shooting 7 of 30 from behind the arc against Ole Miss.
The Badgers also failed to crack 50 points for the seventh time. As a means of comparison, last year’s team that reached the Sweet 16 fell below 50 just once.
“When we struggled, we just shot the ball poorly,” Berggren said. “It’s hard to pinpoint a reason why. I know we have guys that put in the time and the hard work. Sometimes, you don’t get out of it what you put in. That’s tough at this point to swallow.”
One of the most pressing questions leading into the game was whether Wisconsin would be able to dictate the pace of play — a common refrain when the Badgers compete against up-tempo teams. Ole Miss entered the contest ranked No. 8 nationally in scoring offense (77.9 points per contest), and Wisconsin ranked eighth in scoring defense (55.9 points). But it took only a few minutes to realize the Badgers would succeed in slowing down the game to make life difficult on a Rebels team determined to run.
Wisconsin managed to take a 25-22 lead into halftime by frustrating Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson, the Rebels’ leading scorer, into 1 for 11 shooting. Still, Ryan spent much of the first half with his thumb and forefinger pinched over his eyes as shots clanked and turnovers mounted. The Badgers, known for taking care of the ball, committed eight turnovers on five assists in the first 20 minutes.
Ole Miss took its first lead since early in the first half at 40-39 on forward Murphy Holloway’s layup with 8:33 remaining in the game. The Rebels would close on a 21-7 run, as the Badgers made two shots from the field. Henderson finished with a game-high 19 points, and Ole Miss (27-8) advanced to play No. 13 seed La Salle (23-9) in the Round of 32 on Sunday.
“Second half, they kind of cranked up the pressure,” Berggren said. “We folded.”
When the end was imminent, Ryan pulled his three senior starters — Berggren, forward Mike Bruesewitz and forward Ryan Evans. Berggren and Bruesewitz came to the bench with 39.6 seconds remaining, Berggren with a towel draped around his neck and Bruesewitz running his fingers through his famous head of shaggy red hair. Evans exited 23 seconds later and briefly saluted Wisconsin’s contingent of fans.
In the locker room afterward, Bruesewitz, the most outspoken player on the team, couldn’t muster any words above a whisper as the tears welled in his eyes.
“We just didn’t get it done,” he repeated.
Despite the departures, Wisconsin will be a good bet to return to the NCAA tournament next season for a 16th consecutive time. Ryan’s defensive principles and his players’ willingness to embrace such a style create matchup problems and have kept the team consistent for more than a decade.
But a promising future couldn’t mask the disappointment of the present on Friday. And in the hush of the locker room, while Ryan and his players grasped for answers, it seemed clear this loss would linger for quite some time.
“When it really counted, shots didn’t go for us,” Dekker said. “I wish I could say ‘Back to the gym’ and we could correct that for the next game, but we don’t have the next game.”