When Traevon Jackson’s attempt at a game-winning shot rattled out as time expired, the Wisconsin Badgers’ magical NCAA tournament run came to a bitter end.
Just moments earlier, Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison buried a cold-blooded, go-ahead 3-pointer to give the Wildcats a 74-73 lead with 5.7 seconds remaining in the game. The clutch shot was just another in a remarkable tournament run for Harrison, who also hit similar daggers against both Michigan and Louisville.
For the Badgers, it was an utterly heartbreaking end to what had been perhaps the most memorable and exciting season in program history. I know, most people aren’t used to hearing the word “exciting” associated with Wisconsin basketball, but this team wasn’t your older brother’s Badgers. No, this year’s Wisconsin team was more formidable on offense than any other during Bo Ryan’s tenure in Madison, averaging 73.5 points per game.
But more impressive than their offensive firepower was the Badgers’ unparalleled team chemistry. This group of players truly loved playing alongside each other and would have given anything to play 40 more minutes together. This was never more evident than in the locker room following Saturday’s gut-wrenching defeat, where players cried and hugged one another. It was a scene that CBSSports.com’s Jeff Borzello described as “one of the most emotional locker rooms I’ve been in following a game.”
While the players’ unbreakable bond may have left them inconsolable after the loss to Kentucky, it also was a huge factor in their overall success this year.
Wisconsin came flying out of the gates at the beginning of the season, setting a school record by starting 16-0. That stretch included victories over eventual NCAA Tournament 1-seeds Florida and Virginia, Bo Ryan’s 300th career win at the school, and junior forward Frank Kaminsky breaking the school single-game scoring record when he dropped 43 points on North Dakota.
The Badgers, however, were brought back to Earth, losing five of their next six games following that historic start. But Wisconsin refused to stay down for long, immediately returning to its winning ways. This included a memorable win over Michigan State that featured a late, go-ahead jumper courtesy of Traevon Jackson, and Bo Ryan notching the 700th victory of his illustrious coaching career. The Badgers entered the NCAA tournament having won nine of their last 11, where they went on a run in the Big Dance that cemented the team’s place in Wisconsin sports lore.
The Badgers kicked off the tournament in Milwaukee by defeating the American Eagles in a game where they finished on a 65-18 run after trailing 17-10 in the early going. Next up in the Round of 32 was the Oregon Ducks and their high-octane offense. The Ducks jumped out to the early lead, silencing the partisan Badger crowd and taking a 49-37 lead into the half.
Despite the deficit, Wisconsin came roaring back in the second half, coming alive on offense and turning the Bradley Center into Kohl Center East. The Badgers took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by Ben Brust with 1:07 remaining, on their way to an 85-78 win. The shot also had historical significance for Brust, as it was the 288th 3-pointer of his career, which put him past Tim Locum for the most in school history.
After cruising past Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen to reach the school’s first Elite Eight since 2005, the stage was set for the Badgers to take on the West Region’s No. 1 seed, the Arizona Wildcats.
The matchup between Wisconsin and Arizona ended up being one of the best games of the entire NCAA tournament, an overtime thriller where neither team ever really took control of the game. It also featured one of the most outstanding individual performances of the tournament, courtesy of Frank Kaminsky.
One of the country’s most improved players this year, Kaminsky was at his very best against the Wildcats, scoring 28 points and grabbing 11 rebounds to cause all sorts of trouble for a stout Arizona defense that was among the nation’s best all season.
The Badgers held on for a 64-63 victory to reach the third Final Four in school history and first since 2000. It was also the first Final Four appearance for Bo Ryan, taking him off the list of best coaches to never reach college basketball’s final weekend.
Wisconsin’s unforgettable run may have ended in heartbreaking fashion, but that shouldn’t take away from what these Badgers were able to accomplish this season. They didn’t just win in the NCAA tournament, they had a whole heck of a lot of fun doing it. From Zach Bohannon’s selfies and Evan Anderson’s dance moves to Nigel Hayes’ hilarious interview segments and a celebration with Aaron Rodgers, this team continued to have a fun, relaxed demeanor despite reaching seemingly uncharted territory for Wisconsin basketball.
Frankly, it’s hard to remember any team in recent memory that better represented its university and fan base. The Badgers were a group of fun-loving, tightly-knit guys who knew how to win, and both UW-Madison students and fans all across Wisconsin fully embraced them. The truly unbelievable celebration on State Street following the win over Arizona will be talked about in Madison for years to come, and is a testament to the passion fans had for this team.
Among key players, Brust is likely to be the only departure from this year’s squad. Sam Dekker and Kaminsky have already said that they are each returning, and both should be among the best players in the Big Ten next season if they do indeed come back. Jackson, Josh Gasser, and Duje Dukan will bring veteran leadership to the table, while Hayes and Bronson Koenig will look to continue to improve after solid freshmen campaigns. Next year’s Badgers could very easily be in the top five of preseason polls, and they have all the tools to return to the Final Four.
But regardless of what ends up happening with next year’s team, the 2013-14 Wisconsin Badgers have already left their mark as one of the best teams in Wisconsin sports history.
There’s no doubt that every player on this team would have loved nothing more than to have had the opportunity to play another game together. I’m also willing to bet that just about every Badger fan would give anything to see this team take the floor at the Kohl Center one last time.