College Basketball
Wisconsin gets huge confidence boost with Big Ten Tourney win over top-seeded Purdue
College Basketball

Wisconsin gets huge confidence boost with Big Ten Tourney win over top-seeded Purdue

Updated Mar. 16, 2024 4:59 p.m. ET

The missed free throw gave Wisconsin a chance. When Purdue star Zach Edey split a pair with six seconds remaining and the Boilermakers leading by two, the opportunity for a season-defining upset was real. The Badgers headily advanced the ball beyond midcourt and called timeout.

In his huddle, Wisconsin coach Greg Gard outlined a beautiful play that capitalized on Purdue’s penchant for having Edey guard the ball on in-bounds passes late in games. Veteran Tyler Wahl slipped a pass to point guard Chucky Hepburn along the right sideline, and then Hepburn did the rest: a twisting drive around Boilermaker guard Braden Smith for a kissed layup that rattled in as time expired. A terrific Big Ten Tournament semifinal was going to overtime.

The attrition and physical toll of defending Edey, the 7-foot-4, 300-pound behemoth who is about to become the Naismith Men’s Player of the Year for a second consecutive season, was wearing the Badgers thin. Starting center Steven Crowl fouled out. Wahl, the starting power forward, did the same. Even backup big man Nolan Winter saw his afternoon cut short by a fifth foul.

It meant that most of overtime belonged to Edey, to Purdue, to the best team in the Big Ten and one of the best teams in the country. Edey made eight free throws in the extra session alone as the Badgers seemed to run out of bodies to defend him.


But a putback dunk from leading scorer AJ Storr and a timely layup from Hepburn meant Wisconsin had one more chance, trailing by a single point. And that’s when shooting guard Max Klesmit curled into the lane for a right-handed runner that bounced off the rim and in to give the Badgers an improbable 76-75 win. They advance to Sunday’s title game at 3:30 p.m. EST to face the winner of second-seeded Illinois and third-seeded Nebraska.

Purdue’s attempt to become the first repeat winner of the Big Ten Tournament since Michigan accomplished it in 2017 and 2018 was officially extinguished. Edey finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds while shooting 14-for-19 from the free-throw line.

Here are three takeaways from the game:

Righting the ship

No team in the Big Ten traveled to Minneapolis this week in need of a greater confidence boost than Wisconsin, which arrived at the Big Ten Tournament having lost eight of its last 11 games. The Badgers had lost to the likes of Michigan, Rutgers, Iowa and Indiana during that stretch — none of which Wisconsin would have been expected to lose — as the momentum of an early-season charge evaporated into the Midwest winter. Gard’s group was assured of a spot in the NCAA Tournament regardless of what unfolded at the Target Center, but the Badgers knew there were plenty of problems to fix.

Any angst and frustration Wisconsin felt over the preceding six weeks were alleviated in a stunning offensive display against Maryland in the tournament’s second round. The Badgers blew away the Terrapins, 87-56, by draining an incredible 16 3-pointers on 25 attempts. Five different players made multiple shots from beyond the arc.

The follow-up performance against Northwestern in the quarterfinals produced more of the same: a 70-61 victory over one of the league’s best teams, the result fueled again by impressive perimeter shooting. Wisconsin shot 10-for-22 from beyond the arc and shot nearly 47% from the field overall. Gard’s group finally looked like the same Badgers that began the season 16-4 overall and reached No. 6 in the polls. Then they went out and knocked off Purdue.

Hepburn returned from an injury to score a season-high 22 points. Crowl reached double-figure scoring for a third-straight game. And with four players chipping in at least 10 points, the pressure on Storr (20 points) to carry the offense was finally — and mercifully — reduced.  

This version of Wisconsin will enter the NCAA Tournament feeling good about its chances.

Back to business

The temporary shock and horror that radiated through Purdue’s fan base when Smith left Friday’s quarterfinal with an apparent knee injury were quelled when he returned a few minutes later to finish the game. And any lingering concerns about Smith’s status for the remainder of the Big Ten Tournament and beyond — with the Boilermakers assured of being a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, too — were erased for good when Smith was once again in the starting lineup against Wisconsin.

The issue was described by the CBS broadcast crew as a knee injury that developed into a calf problem as the afternoon and evening progressed following a hard-fought win over Michigan State. But Smith wore no protective clothing or wraps on his right leg when tipoff arrived for Saturday’s semifinal. He seemed no worse for wear.

Nothing about Smith’s performance suggested he was compromised or inhibited by his injured calf. Smith scored seven points and dished out a game-high 10 assists while shouldering an increased workload during stretches of the game when Edey was saddled with foul trouble. His shooting numbers weren’t great — 3-for-10 from the field and 1-for-3 from 3-point range — but Smith’s nimble exploitation of ball screens to create pull-up jumpers and incisive passes was reminiscent of his performances at full health.

No play was more indicative of Smith’s value than a double screen pick-and-roll devised by Painter in the waning moments with the score tied, 62-62. Smith curled around both screens and dropped a pass to Edey for a layup plus the foul that gave the Boilermakers a late lead.

But he fouled out in overtime with 21.3 seconds remaining.

A quick hook

Barely two minutes had elapsed when the most irreplaceable player in college basketball suddenly needed replacing. A missed layup by Trey Kaufman-Renn led to an over-the-back foul on Edey, who nudged Crowl out of the way for a dunk. The two big men exchanged words as they walked toward the other end of the court, and Edey bumped bodies with Klesmit. The whistle blew. Edey was hit with a technical.

Two fouls by the 17:56 mark of the opening half sent Edey to the bench for an extended stretch with the Boilermakers holding an early 6-2 lead. Purdue head coach Matt Painter kept him there for more than 10 minutes of game time before giving Edey another chance down the stretch. Only Painter knows whether the decision to reinsert his star player was part of the original plan or a response to the surge Wisconsin mounted.

Even though Edey’s absence unclogged the lane, where Crowl made three shots around the rim for seven quick points, it was the Badgers’ explosion from beyond the arc that altered the trajectory of the game. Wisconsin buried five 3-pointers in a six-minute span to transform an early deficit into a 28-23 lead. There was a deep shot clock-beating effort from Hepburn and a pair of corner 3s from Storr. Another from Klesmit with 6:47 remaining gave the Badgers their largest lead of the half.  

Reintroducing Edey helped stabilize the game for Purdue, which finished the half with a 13-8 spurt that leveled the score at the break. Edey scored three of his six first-half points during that stretch while also grabbing three rebounds (two offensive) and dishing out one assist after returning from his prolonged period on the bench.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him at @Michael_Cohen13.

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