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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Final Four: Turning points of a memorable season

Turning-point game: Florida

The Badgers played arguably one of the toughest schedules in the country this season. It started early, though it didn’t come without its benefits. The Badgers were catapulted onto the national stage after beating then-No. 11 Florida in just the third game of the season, Wisconsin’s home opener.

The Badgers are undefeated in home openers at the Kohl Center, a fact that was not lost on the Gators. The win put UW’s record at 21-6 against AP Top 25 teams at the Kohl Center, a spectacular number by any means.

Florida was admittedly missing five key players, including this year’s SEC Player of the Year, senior guard Scottie Wilbekin and SEC Sixth Man of the Year, redshirt sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith.

Sophomore forward Sam Dekker led the Badgers with 16 points, while junior guard Traevon Jackson added 13 of his own, including a jumper from the free-throw line with eight seconds left to go, which all but sealed the game.

The win propelled Wisconsin from No. 20 to No. 12 and put the Badgers on the map nationally, setting them up for an eventual 16-0 run to open up the season.

16-0: best start in school history

It was a season of highs and lows for Wisconsin, marked by the ecstasy of big wins and the stinging pain of unexpected defeat.

The Badgers began their 2013-’14 campaign on a steep upward trajectory as two months of perfect basketball for Wisconsin culminated in a rout of Illinois Jan. 8, giving this year’s squad sole ownership of the best start in school history, 16 straight wins.

Highlighting the season-opening streak was a Championship at the Cancun Challenge after victories over St. Louis and West Virginia. Dekker was also named Tournament MVP, while Jackson made the All-Tournament Team.

In a game against North Dakota in November, Kaminsky’s 43 points set the single-game school record for points scored. In the game the Badgers scored 103 points, eclipsing 100 for the first time since 1995.

Also passing a milestone was Ryan, who won his 300th game as coach of the Badgers against Virginia early in December. Ryan also recorded 352 wins at UW-Platteville, along with four national championships.

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Over the span of Wisconsin’s win streak, the Badgers beat three Associated Press Top 25 teams, including Illinois, Florida and Iowa.

Turning-point games: Indiana

The first cut is the deepest, as they say.

Wisconsin’s perfect 16-0 run came to a screeching halt at Assembly Hall against unranked Indiana Jan. 14, after the Hoosiers transformed a 10-point halftime deficit into a lead with a 12-0 run early in the second half.

Dekker, the Badgers’ typical high scorer, made just four shots all game, while Jackson scored a team-high 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting.

It was the Badgers’ first loss to Indiana since 2007, marking the first point in the 2013-’14 campaign that the 3-point shot had failed long-ball reliant Wisconsin. The Hoosiers held Wisconsin to just four free throws as well, limiting UW’s scoring chances significantly.

The Badgers scored just 44 of their 72 points in the paint, while Indiana cashed in 52 from between the blocks.

This game undoubtedly left UW reeling, and in the next two weeks Wisconsin dropped four of its next five games before successfully adjusting to a more inside-outside game, centering on its big men, junior forward Frank Kaminsky and freshman forward Nigel Hayes.

It was the beginning of a rough two weeks for the Badgers, though the stretch ultimately resulted in adjustments that helped Wisconsin get deep in the tournament past defensive-minded teams like Arizona.

And I’m free, free fallin’

“Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn't end.”

After a spectacular 16-0 start, Wisconsin went belly-up in mid-January, losing five of six games over a two-week span, including two home losses to Michigan and Northwestern. The only game Wisconsin managed to win in those two weeks was against Purdue on the road.

It all began after a loss to Indiana Jan. 14. The Hoosiers committed just nine turnovers, turning a 10-point halftime deficit into the defining game of their season.

After that, it was more of the same, with losses to Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State all contributing to Wisconsin’s fall from grace. The Badgers fell from No. 3 to No. 24 in the AP Top 25 during their losing streak.

Cold shooting doomed the Badgers, who shot 41.3 percent in their skid compared to 45.9 on the season.

Wisconsin’s silver lining came in the form of its big men. Hayes had breakout games off the bench against Minnesota and Ohio State, while Kaminsky found his niche down low, setting up an inside-out strategy the Badgers would use to turn the season around.

Turning-point games: Michigan State

Though it wasn’t the game that broke the Badgers’ losing stretch, their home contest against then-No. 8 Michigan State undoubtedly put Wisconsin back on the map nationally, making up for two weeks of lost time.

MSU senior center Adreian Payne burned UW for most of the afternoon inside, though his eventual dagger would be a game-tying 3-pointer with 10 seconds left in the game.

Jackson, who struggled mightily during the Badgers’ mid-January slump, was still entrusted to take the last shot when Wisconsin needed a miracle. And deliver, he did, drilling a long jump shot to put the Badgers ahead with 2.1 seconds left, ultimately sealing the win for Wisconsin.

"Just [because] they lost a couple of home games—and that's un-American in the cheesehead state—don't kid yourself. They're a very good team," said Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo after the game.

It wasn’t all golden for the Badgers, however, after committing 14 turnovers and shooting a measly 26 percent from beyond the arc Wisconsin was lucky to escape with the victory.

Hayes hit double figures for the third straight game, helping UW improve to 10-5 at home against the AP Top 10 at home under head coach Bo Ryan.

Picking up the pieces

As quickly as the January blues set in for Wisconsin, they were over just as fast. A convincing win over Illinois was all it took for the Badgers to regain momentum before going on another eight-game win streak.

In the process UW took down three more AP Top 25 teams, including then-No. 8 Michigan State and then-No. 15 teams Michigan and Iowa.

Jackson’s buzzer beater against the Spartans sealed a game for the ages, while Hayes led the Badgers with 14 points off the bench.

Michigan was more of the same from the Wisconsin big men, this time with Kaminsky catching fire en route to a 75-62 point victory. The Badgers saw their 18-point first-half lead cut to three before calmly pulling away in the final minutes of the game.

In a microcosm of the second half of the season, Wisconsin fought back from a 29-19 halftime deficit against Indiana, eventually winning the game 69-58 to exact revenge on the Hoosier team that handed the Badgers their first loss of the year in January.

The Badgers stumbled in their last regular-season game, dropping the contest to Nebraska, who at the time was seeking its first NCAA appearance since 1998.

Goin’ Dancin’

After losing in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament to eventual champion Michigan State, No. 2 seed Wisconsin started its tournament run in high fashion with a 75-35 rout of No. 15 seed American, setting a school record for the largest margin of victory in an NCAA tournament game.

From there it was off to the races, with cruise-control victories over Oregon and Baylor.

The Fighting Ducks were no match down low against the Badgers, and finished the game out-rebounded 36-26.

Wisconsin decimated Baylor’s storied zone defense, with the lone senior, guard Ben Brust, hitting three 3-pointers while the rest of the Badgers followed suit.

UW followed up its two strong victories with a successful campaign against Arizona, emerging victorious from an overtime thriller against the No. 1 seed Wildcats.

The victory propelled the Badgers to their first Final Four appearance in 14 years, and the first in Ryan’s already illustrious career.

If there was any doubt Wisconsin deserved to be in the Final Four, it was extinguished during its game against Kentucky.

A 74-73 thriller that came down to the final buzzer, the Badgers found themselves on the wrong end of a long 3-pointer by Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison to put the Wildcats up by one point with 5.7 seconds left in the game.

A memorable season was cut a game short when Jackson’s last-second jumper rolled around the rim and out, closing the door on an already historic run.

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