OMAHA, Neb. — The biggest, baddest Wisconsin basketball team in program history was teetering on the edge of disaster here Sunday night, locked in a tied game with time ticking away against a scrappy group of Oregon players who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Top teams of near-equal stature had crumbled under such pressure already in this tournament, and the Badgers very well could’ve spiraled down the same path.
Instead, there was no panic. No screaming. Just a group of battle-tested players prepared to dig in and prove their worth by surviving to fight another day.
"We didn’t flinch at all," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "I didn’t really feel anything that was like ‘Uh oh,’ or anything like that. We were just calm in huddles."
What followed was yet another demonstration as to why this may be the year UW takes its talented team all the way to Indianapolis and a national championship. No. 1 seed Wisconsin escaped with a 72-65 victory against No. 8 seed Oregon at the CenturyLink Center in a closer-than-expected Round of 32 NCAA tournament game. UW (33-3) advances to face fourth-seeded North Carolina (26-11) on Thursday in a West Region Sweet 16 matchup in Los Angeles.
No, it was not Wisconsin’s finest performance. But that also may very well have been the point. Because the best teams find ways to win in March no matter the circumstances.
"At this point in the year, you don’t really care how you get it done, you just want to win," Gasser said. "In the middle of Big Ten season, early in the year, you want to be playing well, you want to be getting better. I don’t want to say we don’t want to get better, but at this point, I don’t care if we play like crap and still win. As long as we win."
The stretch that defined Wisconsin’s night — and saved its season — began when Oregon forward Dwayne Benjamin buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to tie the game at 52 with 5:53 remaining. Badgers coach Bo Ryan stood with his arms folded on the sideline, stoically waiting for one of his players to rise to the challenge. Chants of "Let’s Go Red" and "Let’s Go Ducks" rang simultaneously through the arena, optimism and nerves colliding in a crescendo of noise.
But much like a year ago when these teams met in the same NCAA tournament round, Wisconsin proved tougher down the stretch. This time, it began when Badgers guard Bronson Koenig drew a foul and made 1 of 2 free throws to put Wisconsin back on top, 53-52. On the other end of the floor, Badgers center Frank Kaminsky stripped Oregon’s Dillon Brooks on a drive to the hoop under the basket. That helped lead to Sam Dekker’s reverse layup and a three-point edge.
Two possessions later, Gasser stripped the ball before Oregon guard Joseph Young — who scored a game-high 30 points — could catch a handoff pass from the top of the key. Dekker then drained a 3 from the left corner for a 58-52 lead with four minutes remaining and held up three fingers as he ran back down the court, screaming "three, baby."
"We have guys that aren’t going to get too riled up," Dekker said. "We’re just going to stay the course and play our basketball, and we got a big 6-0 run there, opened up the lead and got a few stops and held it down from there."
Pretty soon, Kaminsky was sticking a putback layup in for a 66-56 lead and flexing both arms toward Wisconsin’s fan section behind the bench. When the final buzzer sounded, players, coaches, cheerleaders and even Bucky Badger linked arms and sang the school fight song to the same contingent of fans, as the team was headed for a spot in the regional semifinal.
"Getting to the last 16 teams left in college basketball is obviously a good thing," Kaminsky said. "But we’re a 1 seed for a reason. We have a good team this year. We have a good body of work, so we’re going into games expecting to compete and play hard and come out on top."
Sunday’s result was enough to make Oregon players scratch their heads because the Ducks collected more rebounds and shot better from the field and from 3-point range, all while having their best player put together a stellar offensive performance. Wisconsin’s advantage, however, came inside — much as it did during an opening-round victory against Coastal Carolina. UW’s frontcourt of Dekker, Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes combined for 47 points and 17 rebounds. And the Badgers made more free throws (21) than the Ducks attempted (seven).
Hayes suggested luck played at least a small part in Wisconsin reaching the second weekend of the tournament, and he provided one example. Hayes missed a free throw in the final minute with Wisconsin leading by seven, but Brooks lost the rebound off his hands out of bounds.
Still, the ability to create one’s luck is vital in March. And the Badgers certainly have the talent, discipline and experience of a Final Four appearance last year to make their breaks.
"Luck is a result of the hard work you put in," Hayes said. "It’s not something that just happens. You have to make your luck happen."
Wisconsin’s 33 victories represent a single-season school record. Sunday’s game, however, demonstrated how perilous the difference can be between winning and losing in a one-and-done format.
Badgers players recognized they’d need to perform at a higher level to continue on their quest for a magical season. They had escaped. And for one night, that was enough.
"Thankfully this wasn’t the national championship game because we probably would’ve lost it," Hayes said. "But that’s what happens when you will yourself to a victory like that, and we’ve given ourselves another shot at another game."