INDIANAPOLIS—They almost made it all the way back.
Almost rallied from an immense deficit late in the game. Almost reversed a horrendous offensive performance. Almost staged one of the more unbelievable comebacks in the program's recent history.
But in a single-elimination format like the Big Ten Tournament, almost doesn't count for much.
Senior guard Jason Bohannon's potentially game-tying 3-point try came up short with 18 seconds to go, and Illinois held off the late Badger charge to win 58-54. The game sent Wisconsin home after its first day for the second-straight year and advanced the Illini to face Ohio State, the tournament's top seed.
""We certainly thought that we had a chance, we put ourself in position to give ourselves an opportunity to win and we got a look, and it just didn't quite fall,"" Bohannon said after his team shot under 30 percent for the game. ""It's tough, but we put ourself in a very tough position to begin with.""
The Badgers sat behind 46-30 with 6:45 to go after a 3-pointer from Illinois freshman guard D.J. Richardson appeared to end the game. Then Badger guards, who up to that point were mired in a deep shooting funk, finally made their presence felt.
First came a 3-point basket from sophomore Jordan Taylor, and then Bohannon connected on his first basket after missing his first seven.
The contest idled for a few minutes, but even Illinois' 12-point advantage with under two minutes to go seemed insurmountable.
At that point Trevon Hughes went to work.
He hit four 3-pointers in five possessions, including a fadeaway that banked in off the glass as he tumbled to the hardwood. Those were his only four field goals of the game and came after a 0-for-10 start.
""Trevon hit some big shots, and obviously the crowd got our bench behind us, got some energy, and we just couldn't pull it out at the end,"" Taylor said. ""But I think we waited too long to have that sense of urgency.""
That was abundantly clear, as Hughes' big burst came while his team had begun fouling Illini players to stop the clock. The Badgers were trying everything they could to force jump balls and get the ball back, but they were called for fouls each time, including one where one referee signaled for a jump ball but was overruled by another member of his crew.
""When you pressure, I've seen it happen a few times, the guy thinks he's going to get fouled, he keeps the ball in the corner, he's trying to protect it, we're not fouling, next thing you know 10 seconds go off, we get the turnover,"" Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. ""I thought that was going to happen on one of those last possessions, but we were called for a foul and we didn't get it.""
Instead, Hughes fouled out after his last shot brought Wisconsin to within two. The Badgers had a good look to tie the game moments later, but Bohannon couldn't connect over the outstretched arms of an Illini defender.
For the team in orange, it was a familiar duo carry the load. Much like they did in Madison, junior guard Demetri McCamey and junior center Mike Tisdale carried the load with nearly 60 percent of their team's points.
Tisdale was especially effective, finding open spots for long jumpers and even putting the ball on the floor and driving in to unleash an effective running hook.
""We definitely wanted to negate his jump shot as much as we could, so he was able to counter that and put the ball on the floor,"" junior forward Jon Leuer said. ""If he's able to do that, it's tough to stop if you can do both.""
""A lot of time we flew past him too far and just gave him wide-open lanes, so that was kind of our fault for, and I did it too, just overpursuing them on the jump shot.""
The loss was Wisconsin's second straight in the No. 4/No. 5 game of the Big Ten Tournament. The Badgers lost to Ohio State in that spot last year, also losing in their only game of the weekend.
At day's end, the Badgers could never quite come all the way back into the game.
""Kept fighting and clawing, and they [kept] pulling away, and we came back closer and they pull away again. That definitely, you know, that definitely, it sucks,"" Hughes said.
Could he have made a difference if he didn't foul out before the game-tying attempt?
""Throughout the whole game, not just that instant right there when I fouled out, throughout the whole game we put ourselves in that position. We had a chance to win it, I mean tie it. Fell short.""
With the NCAA Tournament next week, it will mean the season the next time they fall short.