Bronson Koenig is at his best with the game on the line. Luckily for Wisconsin, the game was on the line all night.
The Badgers’ three-point king put another jewel in his crown, setting the school record with eight threes to keep Wisconsin one step ahead of Virginia Tech. Koenig’s 28-point outing delivered an 84-74 victory in KeyBank Center.
Nearly all of the fans stayed for Thursday’s late NCAA Tournament game, and they witnessed a net-burning performance by both teams. The Hokies repeatedly pulled within a point of the eighth-seeded Badgers, but they couldn’t get the tying bucket.
Koenig made sure of it.
“You could definitely say I was looking for my shot,” he said. “It’s something I take pride in being a senior point guard is just making plays in critical moments. I knew when they kept cutting it to one that I was going to have to make some type of play. I was just trying to be as aggressive as possible.”
The senior guard continually torched the Hokies from beyond the arc. He made open looks with time on the shot clock. He buried a fall-away threes with the timer hitting zero. He went 8 of 17 on three-pointers, attempting the same number as the entire Virginia Tech squad.
“I was feeling it a little bit,” Koenig said. “I don’t think I shot all that well to be honest, looking at my numbers. I knew I would be able to get some open looks if I just kept moving, and my teammates did a great job both screening and passing me the ball.
“I was just searching for it and just trying to stay on the attack.”
Koenig is Wisconsin’s all-time three-point leader with 264 during his four-year career. During the past two seasons, he’d connected at 51.5 percent during the final five minutes and overtime.
It seemed like the entire game was overtime. The ninth-seeded Hokies just wouldn’t go away.
Though it wasn’t easy, the Badgers kept their opening-game dominance alive. The Badgers have won 10 of the last 11 opening-round games, part of a 14-2 run since 2002.
Despite not hoisting the trophy, the Badgers have been a tournament success story. They’re the only team with three straight appearances in the Sweet 16. Their 12 wins since 2014 are the most in the land.
“It definitely helped a lot for us to have the older guys that we have that have been through some of the runs that we’ve had in the tournament,” Badgers senior forward Nigel Hayes said. “It showed with Bronson and the way he responded to each time they made a run.”
The Badgers will put their impressive history on the line Saturday against No. 1 Villanova. The defending champs beat Mount St. Mary’s, 76-56, to advance to the second round.
Hayes knows Wisconsin will need better defense against the Wildcats. Virginia Tech shot 47.8 percent.
“Our defense wasn’t good at all,” Hayes said. “I’m sure coach will be up all night with clenched fists watching the film and how poorly we were.”
Coach Greg Gard will also watch Koenig’s shots.
“I’ve known him since he was a freshman in high school,” Gard said. “I recruited him for three years before he committed to us, so I’ve seen him do a lot of things. I watched him win two state championships. Obviously, I’ve watched him for four years with us. He’s a heck of a player.”
An ankle ailment slowed Seth Allen and Virginia Tech during the first half. The Sixth Man of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference headed to the locker room with 13 minutes left in the first half, and he didn’t check back into the game until 5:01 remained.
Though Virginia Tech uses just seven players, it was the deeper Wisconsin squad that was gasping for air late in the first. Though the Badgers couldn’t catch their breath, the Hokies couldn’t catch them.
Thanks to Koenig.
“He did a very good job of moving without the ball,” Gard said. “He moved more without the ball than he did with the ball for the most part because of what we wanted to run against what they were doing defensively. He found spots.”