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Jerry Sullivan: Bronson Koenig makes big shots, bigger statements

Bronson Koenig says he generally plays his best when he's not thinking about the magnitude of the moment, when he pretends that he doesn't really care.

So before Thursday night's first-round NCAA game against Virginia Tech at the KeyBank Center, Koenig told himself, 'It's your senior year, March Madness. Why not go out there and have some fun, be aggressive and let it fly?'

"When I do that, I shoot the ball better," he said, "rather than being nervous or tight for the game."

He didn't look tight. Koenig, one of the best clutch players in the land, scored a career-high 28 points as Wisconsin beat Virginia Tech, 84-74. He fired up 17 three-pointers and made eight, a single-game record for a program that has produced its share of great long-range shooters over the years.

Koenig, a 6-3 senior, played like a man who didn't want his career to end. It was his 15th career NCAA Tournament game. The Badgers have won more games (12) in the Big Dance than any other team in the country during his four years. He's second in the nation in active NCAA tourney scoring to teammate Nigel Hayes.

That's not the profile of a casual competitor. Koenig has been performing with a more serious edge these days, like a young man who is playing for something bigger than himself. The fact is, every time he steps on the floor, he's aware he is representing an entire community.

Koenig is Native American. His mother, Ethel Funmaker, is 100 percent Ho-Chunk, one of two federally recognized tribes formerly known as the Winnebago. His father is white. Native American kids would flock to his games when he was growing up in La Crosse, Wisc., even before he hit high school.

Ethel told him at an early age that he was a role model, like it or not. Bronson was reticent at first, but eventually embraced the responsibility. He chose Wisconsin over Duke, North Carolina and Kansas, so he could be close to the native community in his home state, and he began speaking out.

Last September, Koenig, one of 21 Native Americans playing Division I hoops, made a magnificent gesture on the part of his mother's people. He and his brother, Miles, drove a trailer 14 hours to deliver supplies to the Standing Rock Reservation, where people were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

They traveled with a flag of the Ho-Chunk flapping from the trailer. The response was overwhelming. Koenig gave a couple of free clinics to the kids, and was amazed at how familiar they were with his career. They sang a song of gratitude to the brothers. Koenig wrote about it in the Players' Tribune.

"It was a life-changing experience," he said. "I'll remember it forever."

Koenig was gratified when a permit to complete work on the Pipeline was denied during the Obama administration. But he knew it was likely to be approved by President Trump, who has authorized the project to move forward.

"It's not surprising," Koenig said Friday before practice at KeyBank Center. "Everyone kind of knew that he was going to do that when he took office. It's unfortunate -- that and all the funding they're pulling from climate and environmental research and everything. It's a little disheartening."

Still, he feels the collective power and spirit of those people whenever he plays a game, rooting him on and sharing his success on the court.

"Definitely," he said. "Seeing about 10,000 Native Americans there, from all over the continent, and the fact they knew my name and who I am, really opened my eyes. It makes me more grateful for all the support that I have."

Koenig said he gets countless messages on social media from Native American fans. He said he sees them in the stands wherever he goes, cheering for him.

Last summer, he trained harder than ever for his senior year. Koenig had a glorious career to that point. The Badgers reached the Final Four in his freshman and sophomore seasons. Last year, his late three-pointer gave the Badgers an upset over No. 2 seed Xavier in the second round of the NCAAs.

But Koenig shot poorly in the Sweet 16 loss to Notre Dame, going 3 of 12. That's the game that stuck with him. He was devastated. He felt Wisconsin could have made it to another Final Four by getting past the Fighting Irish.

On Saturday afternoon in Buffalo, the eighth-seeded Badgers have a chance to strike another blow in the tourney. Over the last three NCAAs, they have four victories over No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, the most of any school during that time. That makes them an especially dangerous challenge for top seed Villanova.

"I agree with you 100 percent," said Villanova coach Jay Wright. "They are a great eight seed. We learned over the years that you get great teams at every stage of this tournament. We just look at it as next game. We love playing great teams, we really do, and we're looking forward to it."

So are the Badgers. Seniors Koenig and Hayes will be playing in their 16th NCAA tourney game, one behind Josh Gasser, the school's all-time leader. Koenig and Hayes combined for 31 points in the second half against Virginia Tech. Clearly, they weren't ready for their careers to end.

"It's a sense of urgency you have," said Hayes, a 6-8 forward. "I've been fortunate to be on teams that made long runs with older guys. Once the run ends, you see the look on guys' face, the tears, the pain. I saw that at a young age and I want to do everything in my power to not let that happen."

This is a tough spot for both teams. Wisconsin lost five of six late in the Big Ten season, which dropped them to an 8 seed and put them opposite the defending national champs in the second round.

"We just see it as a game against a really good team," Koenig said. "It doesn't matter when this game takes place. We've been here before."

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