The giant killers of Wisconsin have struck again.
Over the last four years, no team in the NCAA Tournament has as many victories over No. 1 or 2 seeds as the Wisconsin Badgers. They earned their fifth such victory Saturday in thrilling fashion, sending defending national champion Villanova home in the second round with a 65-62 victory.
“Just an unbelievable, gutty performance against a terrific team,” Badgers coach Gary Gard said.
A raucous crowd of 19,261 inside KeyBank Center was there to witness a thrilling conclusion to the NCAA’s latest stop here. The Badgers fell behind, 57-50, with 5:31 left when Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo drained a three-pointer from the top of the key. Wisconsin, however, scored the next seven points, tying the game on a three-pointer from senior Bronson Koenig with 3:28 left to set up the dynamite finish.
Koenig, who picked up his fourth foul with 13:21 remaining and didn’t come back into the game until there was 5:43 left, drained another three-pointer with 2:01 remaining that put the Badgers up, 62-59.
“I felt terrible, to say the least, when I got my fourth foul and I was just sitting on the bench trying to be a coach,” he said. “I knew that’s not how my career was going to end. I knew that when coach gave me the opportunity get back in there, I was going to make something happen.”
Villanova tied the game, 62-62, when DiVincenzo hit 1 of 2 free throws with 37 seconds remaining. After advancing the ball past mid court, the Badgers called timeout with 20 seconds left. Gard went to one of his bread-and-butter plays, isolating senior Nigel Hayes on the right side against Villanova’s Mikal Bridges. Hayes scored the go-ahead basket on a silky-smooth reverse layup with 11.4 seconds remaining.
“I didn’t know what move I was actually going to do before I caught the ball,” he said. “Just went, did a fake spin, got to my left hand and fortunately the layup went in for us.”
With a chance to tie or take the lead in the final seconds, Villanova star Josh Hart drove left, but Wisconsin’s 6-foot-10 center, Ethan Happ, stayed with him every step of the way, allowing teammate Vitto Brown to strip the ball away.
“The way some of the calls were going, we weren’t sure if there would have been a foul,” Brown said. “Ethan did a great job keeping his hands back and kind of taking the ambiguity out so they wouldn’t call that foul. … I figured he wasn’t paying attention to me, so I kind of reached in there and had to hold it strong.”
Hart, the Big East Player of the Year, led Villanova with 19 points, but had five turnovers.
“Wisconsin made a heck of a defensive play,” he said. “Give them all the credit. They’re a heck of a team. They made great adjustments.”
Brown hit 1 of 2 free throws after being fouled with 3.4 seconds left, and a desperation heave by Jalen Brunson was well off the mark, sending the Badgers to the Sweet 16 for the fourth year in a row – a remarkable run for the senior class of Koenig, Hayes, Brown and Zak Showalter.
“Just so excited and proud of these guys because they’ve had to battle through a lot this year as we’ve worked and grown through the season together,” Gard said.
Wisconsin lost five of six games near the end of the regular season, but there were signs things were coming together during a run to the Big Ten title game. After losing that game to Michigan, the Badgers were seeded eighth, despite coming into this year’s tournament with an NCAA-best 11 wins over the past three years. That total now stands at 13 after the stop in Buffalo.
“Seeds don’t matter,” Gard said. “I said that all along. … Having been in this long enough, having been a 1, having been a 2, having been a 12, you just got to go play. There’s so much parity, and teams are so good when you get to this time of year, you just have to lace them up and not worry about that.
“I told these guys, ‘I don’t care where we’re seeded.’ We have to win six games. Let’s start with these two this weekend.”
Koenig finished with 17 points, while Happ – who played only six minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls – chipped in 12. Hayes led the Badgers (27-9) with 19, 14 of which came in the second half.
The Badgers advanced despite shooting just 7 of 16 from the free-throw line and being outscored, 24-3, from players coming off the bench.
“We didn’t play perfectly, but we played well enough,” Gard said. “We had enough perseverance to be able to get things done.”
Wisconsin has now taken out a No. 1 seed in three of the past four years.
“All of those games we’ve been the underdog,” Hayes said. “You have all types of your ranking systems. … The thing is with all those algorithms, they can’t calculate heart, will to win, toughness, desire.
“That’s the things that we have.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright, who called Wisconsin a “great number eight” Friday, saw his team fail to reach the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years, sandwiched around the Wildcats’ title season.
“To me, there’s no dishonor in losing in this tournament,” he said. “We’ve lived through it. You are judged by how you play in this tournament, and that’s the reality of it. So, you have to accept it.”
Villanova (32-4), which lost in Buffalo as a No. 2 seed in 2014, failed in its bid to become the first repeat national champions since the Florida Gators in 2006-07.
DiVincenzo finished with 15 points and Brunson added 11, but the Wildcats got just six points from senior Kris Jenkins, who hit the game-winning three-pointer to beat North Carolina in last year's championship game. Jenkins shot 2 of 9 Saturday, and went 4 of 22 over the Wildcats’ two games in Buffalo including their first-round win over Mount St. Mary’s.
Wisconsin next travels to New York’s Madison Square Garden, where the winner of Saturday night’s game between Florida and Virginia awaits in the Sweet 16.
“We played a really great team,” Hayes said. “It took a great effort from us, and we’re just proud of ourselves for getting the job done.”