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Jerry Sullivan: Nigel Hayes rises to the moment, in the Wisconsin tradition

Moments after the most thrilling game of the NCAA Tournament, Nigel Hayes spoke in a low, impassive monotone. He sounded about as excited as a college kid who had just gotten back a C-plus on a term paper, or found out that his laundry was dry.

"As you can tell by my demeanor, by my tone, I've been here before," Hayes said in the Wisconsin locker room Saturday afternoon at KeyBank Center. "I've done this three times already. I've seen everything – the lights, the cameras, the fun, the ups and downs. So all I want to do is win it all."

Hayes has played in 16 NCAA Tournament games in his four-year career. He has the most points of any active player in the Big Dance. Playing on the big stage is nothing new. But one thing he hadn't done before was have the ball in his hands, with everything on the line, and make the play that kept his team alive.

When the moment arrived, Hayes was ready. Wisconsin was tied, 62-all, with 21 seconds left against defending national champion Villanova. During the timeout, coach Greg Gard decided the best strategy was to give the ball to his 6-8 senior, a player who has been watching teammates respond to such moments all his career.

The Badgers inbounded the ball and cleared out. Hayes faked left, drove the right baseline and threw a reverse layup high off the glass and in for the lead with 12 seconds on the clock. Moments later, No. 8 seed Wisconsin was walking off with a 65-62 upset, headed to Madison Square Garden next week for its fourth consecutive Sweet 16.

It's sometimes hard to imagine how college athletes can contain themselves in the most pressurized moments, when the entire world is watching. Sometimes you freeze, like that poor kid for Vanderbilt the other night. But when you've risen up so many times as an underdog, like Wisconsin, the moment seems almost commonplace.

"Yeah, definitely," said Hayes, who led the Badgers with 19 points. "I've had some great examples in how to be calm, how to be poised, cool, collected, any word you want to use. So it was kind of my turn to step in their shoes and do the same thing."

Wisconsin has won 13 NCAA tourney games in his four years. They've beaten three No. 1 seeds and two No. 2s along the way – all as an underdog, as Hayes was quick to point out. They knocked off unbeaten Kentucky in the Final Four in 2015. He watched Frank Kaminsky and other veterans teach him to stay calm in the moment.

"We've had great leaders who showed us how to win, how to stay calm, how to stay poised, how to make big plays," said Hayes, the fourth-leading scorer in Wisconsin history and two-time academic all-Big Ten. "When negative things happen, we know how to stay positive and bounce back."

Things appeared grim against a talented Villanova team that shot poorly here but seized control in the second half when two of the Badgers' stars – Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ – were in foul trouble. When the Badgers fell behind, 57-50, with 5:31 to play, it seemed the defending champs had matters well in hand.

But Hayes muscled inside for a layup to ignite a comeback that pulled Wisconsin even. He anchored an interior defense that locked down the Wildcats in the stretch. With the game tied at 59, Hayes missed a layup but grabbed two offensive rebounds and finally had his shot blocked out of bounds to the Badgers.

Koenig, clutch as always, nailed a three-pointer to put Wisconsin on top, 62-59. Villanova rallied to tie it, setting up the spectacular winning reverse by Hayes. Naturally, he didn't see it as such a big deal.

"I just made a layup," Hayes said. "Layups are easy. Bronson made some tough jump shots. Honestly, I thought I missed it. I thought I threw it a little too high. But luckily, it went in for us."

Come on. It ceases to be luck when you beat top seeds five times in four years. That's why Villanova coach Jay Wright admitted it was as tough a draw as he could imagine in a 1-8 game. Even after winning the national title, his team carried the reputation of a team that was vulnerable in the subregionals.

"We knew they were a No. 1 seed, a top dog," Hayes said. "For us, this was kind of an easy game, because there's no pressure on us. According to most of the world, we weren't even supposed to get past Virginia Tech.

"That's the beauty of March Madness. That's why there's never been a perfect bracket, because seedings mean absolutely zero. We didn't have to be better than Villanova all year, just for one night."

Villanova had been the only No. 1 seed from a power league to lose before the Sweet 16 in the previous five tourneys. There were also ghosts of 2014 inside the KeyBank Center, where Villanova had been knocked off as a No. 2 seed in the second game by a UConn team that rode the upset all the way to a national championship.

So what could be worse for 'Nova running into an eighth seed that perceived itself as a championship contender? Hayes said Friday that he couldn't bear to see his career end. He had seen the tears and disappointment on the faces of older teammates in previous years. Down 57-50, he saw those faces in his mind.

"That's one of the first things I thought about," he said. "'I don't want to feel that way. I need to do whatever I can'. I was telling the guys, 'You've got to be willing to die to win the game. You've got to give everything that you have.'  The guys responded. We weren't perfect, but we did enough to win."

Now it's on to New York City and the Sweet 16.  There's still a bitter taste in their  mouths from losing to Notre Dame at that point a year ago, after making two straight Final Fours. Beating the top dog is no big deal when you have unfinished business.

"I've done everything in the tournament you can do," Hayes said, "besides hold the trophy. That's all I care about now."

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