Wisconsin seniors end on a high note with home victory

Wisconsin (25-5 overall, 12-5 Big Ten) has now won eight consecutive conference games for the first time since 1940-41.

Mary Langenfeld/Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON, Wis. — Senior days are supposed to be about the celebration of college careers, of time well spent, of memories and of the recognition that lifelong friendships have been forged and can’t be broken.

But let’s be honest. Such festivities tend to be marred slightly unless the home team actually wins. Only then does the postgame celebration truly feel right.

For some perspective on both ends of the spectrum, consider when Wisconsin lost a shocking senior day decision to Purdue last season, when the round of applause for the senior class was polite but restrained and the dispirited tone from fans sucked the life out of the Kohl Center. It marked the first senior day loss under coach Bo Ryan in 12 tries, and players didn’t really know what to do with themselves in the immediate aftermath.

Now consider what took place Wednesday, when No. 9 Wisconsin established a double-digit lead early and then fended off Purdue for a 76-70 senior night victory in the Kohl Center. There were standing ovations for the three seniors — Ben Brust, Zach Bohannon and Evan Anderson — and a vigor that can only accompany a win.

Winners enjoy themselves more. So it wasn’t surprising to see the entire team, along with cheerleaders, sing the alma mater song "Varsity," swaying to the music while facing the student section after the game. Nor was it surprising when Anderson hoisted 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky on his shoulders at midcourt.

And what blared over the loudspeakers? Kool & The Gang’s "Celebration," of course.

"It was very important for us," Kaminsky said of the senior night victory. "We love them. I’ve been with them for three years now and developed great relationships with all of them. Last year was kind of tough sending the seniors out on a sour note, and we didn’t want that to happen again. So we wanted to do it for them."

Kaminsky certainly did his part, scoring a game-high 22 points on 8-of-11 field-goal shooting. He was joined in double figures by point guard Traevon Jackson (14 points) and guard Josh Gasser (13 points). And on a night when leading scorer Sam Dekker was held scoreless for 35 minutes and finished with five points, the Badgers showed their offensive versatility.

Wisconsin (25-5, 12-5 Big Ten) has now won eight consecutive conference games for the first time since 1940-41 and moved one step closer to securing the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament — and perhaps an outside shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

"It was nice to have everyone smiling in the locker room and smiling after the game," said Brust, who finished with nine points. "It makes it much better for everyone, and the seniors especially. Much better to get a win on your last time on the home floor. I’ve had some amazing experiences here at the Kohl Center. And looking forward to seeing what we can do the rest of the way."

A year ago, Wisconsin faltered when faced with a similar situation against a supposedly inferior Purdue team during the regular-season home finale. In that game, the Badgers blew a 13-point first-half lead and missed their final 18 3-pointers, including all 12 second-half attempts.

Badgers 76, Boilermakers 70

But this year’s team has more offensive weapons and has proven less prone to prolonged scoring droughts. That has helped propel Wisconsin into being considered a legitimate Final Four threat.

"I think anytime you have balance, it’s hard," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "You go and the first thing they talk about is Dekker didn’t have a good game. Who cares? Wisconsin won, right? Sometimes when you knock out somebody’s leading scorer, you’re going to win, and that’s not the case with Wisconsin. You have so many guys that are capable of getting 20 points."

Wisconsin led by as many as 18 points in the second half on Wednesday, at 54-36 with 10:15 remaining. Purdue managed to keep the game in single digits down the stretch, trimming the deficit to six on a Kendall Stephens 3-pointer at the buzzer. But this time, the outcome never really seemed in doubt.

With the game out of reach, Ryan took the opportunity to insert both Anderson and Bohannon onto the floor with 19.7 seconds left. Bohannon even helped put the finishing touches on the victory by making two free throws with 10.6 seconds remaining. He received a standing ovation after exiting the game and was joined shortly thereafter by Anderson.

All in all, it was exactly what Wisconsin had hoped for out of the home finale.

"I try not to talk about it too much other than just show respect for teammates and try your best," Ryan said of senior night. "But basically that’s what we’re saying every game. You just reiterate all the points that you’ve made from the first day they’ve been on campus and their teammates will take care of the rest usually. . . .

"To me, senior night is like any other night. It’s 40 minutes of basketball."

And, as most senior nights have gone under Ryan, 40 minutes of basketball that result in the celebration of another Wisconsin victory.

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