This past semester was certainly one of the most memorable in the history of Wisconsin men’s basketball.
When we last saw the Badgers prior to Christmas break, they were off to a brutal start to the season and Bo Ryan had given fans a resignation letter for Christmas—followed a few months later by the news of an extramarital affair that was forgotten in the crawl space.
Longtime assistant Greg Gard was tasked with the job of trying to salvage the season, and he proved to be up to the challenge.
Under Gard, Wisconsin switched back to the swing offense that Ryan has used throughout his coaching career and began to rely more heavily on his bench players. As a result, the Badgers went from a team in the fast lane toward the NIT to one that earned an 18th straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, convincing athletic director Barry Alvarez to pull the interim tag off Gard.
But it was in the NCAA Tournament where Bronson Koenig created a moment that will live on forever in Wisconsin lore.
In the round of 32 against No. 2 seed Xavier, the Badgers rallied back from an eight-point deficit with less than six minutes left in the second half. Koenig buried a game-tying 3-pointer with 11.7 seconds remaining, and Zak Showalter drew a charge on the ensuing Xavier possession to give Wisconsin a shot to win the game in regulation.
After a timeout, Ethan Happ found Koenig on the inbound. Koenig caught the ball in stride, dribbled right and hoisted up a three at the buzzer. His shot drew nothing but nylon, giving UW the upset over the Musketeers, crushing Bill Murray’s heart and moving the Badgers into the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth time in the last six years.
Though Wisconsin lost a heartbreaker to Notre Dame in its next game, Koenig’s buzzer beater served as the exclamation point on a roller coaster season that no fan will soon forget.
Heading into the 2015-’16 season, the Badgers looked poised for a breakout year. With four senior starters, Wisconsin was primed to show improvement and make an NCAA Tournament run.
Still, despite having the pieces seemingly in place, only seven games ended in smiles. Only three conference games ended in joy.
The 22 other games the Badgers played ended in defeat—a trend that unfortunately became consistent and mundane for this UW squad.
However, with losses prevalent and wins unique, the seven times where the five seniors could claim victory became ever more sweet, and will remain happy memories from an otherwise tumultuous year.
None proved more special than Purdue. On Feb. 8, the Badgers battled to beat the 20-12 Boilermakers 64-57.
With only three minutes remaining in that game, Purdue cut the Wisconsin lead to only one and it looked like Wisconsin could once again fold late in a game. Wisconsin did not fold, however, and played its hardest basketball in those final minutes, creating a gap that would prove enough to grant the team its last postgame smile of the season.
This game was special because all five seniors contributed. But mostly, this game was special because in a season where these Badgers outworked their tangible results, this was the last time their work, and their never-quit attitude, could be truly seen and celebrated.
Despite a rough season, the Badgers showed signs of brilliance all year long, continually playing top-ranked teams close. Former head coach Mike Eaves talked all year about “getting over the hump” and securing victories in tight games.
After seven straight contests without a win, Wisconsin finally got over that hump, beating the then No.15-ranked Nittany Lions at home.
After Penn State scored in the first five minutes, Wisconsin responded with four unanswered goals and took a 4-1 lead into the final period.
The Nittany Lions threw everything and the kitchen sink at Wisconsin in the third, outshooting the Badgers 21-2. But freshman goalie Matt Jurusik stood tall in net, holding off the Penn State attack.
Wisconsin held on to a 4-2 lead with 2:40 left when the Nittany Lions were whistled for a penalty. The game appeared to be all but over.
But Penn State took advantage of a Wisconsin turnover and scored a shorthanded goal to cut the deficit to one.
The Badgers then made another turnover and senior defenseman Kevin Schulze was sent to the penalty box for hooking when attempting to stop the breakaway.
Penn State then pulled its goalie to give them a 5-on-4 advantage, which turned into a 6-on-4 when the Nittany Lion penalty ended.
Badger fans then experienced an exceptionally tense 40 seconds of hockey. Penn State had several chances to bury the equalizer, but Jurusik denied them all. After the Nittany Lions spent 30 seconds in their zone, Wisconsin was finally able to clear the puck and salvage the win.
It certainly wasn’t pretty and it did its best to blow a huge lead, but Wisconsin pulled out a win over a top-ranked squad and got the job done in crunch time. When the Badgers finally cleared the puck with nine seconds left, it provided the fans with a rare moment of joy in the 2015-’16 season.
Despite the Wisconsin women’s hockey team concluding the season on a sour note with a loss to Minnesota in the Frozen Four, the team experienced a tremendous amount of success in the 2015-’16 campaign, finishing the season with a No. 3 national ranking.
The unit finished 35-4-1 overall and 24-4-1-1 in the WCHA, making them WCHA regular season champions. They carried the regular season momentum into the WCHA Final Faceoff where they outscored their challengers by a combined score of 6-0, defeating Minnesota 1-0 in the finals to win the WCHA Championship and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in Durham, New Hampshire. Wisconsin dominated Mercyhurst in the first round of the NCAA postseason before losing a gritty overtime match to Minnesota in the subsequent round.
Sophomore forward Annie Pankowski finished the season as the No. 7 point-scorer in the nation with an average of 1.45 points per outing, while fellow sophomore forward Emily Clark finished with a not-so-distant 1.18 average, worthy of a No. 18 national ranking. The leading scorer this season, however, was junior forward Sarah Nurse, who had 25 goals to her name, tied for sixth in the nation. Both Clark and Pankowski also qualified for each of their respective nation’s IIHF World Championship squads, Pankowski representing the U.S. and Clark representing Team Canada.
Despite those impressive numbers from the offensive zone, the belle of the ball was undoubtedly in the net this season for the Badgers. Junior goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens broke NCAA records for single season shutouts (21), goals-against average (0.76), save percentage (.960) and longest scoreless streak, not allowing a goal for more than 9 straight hours of running game clock.
The Badgers return six of their top seven point scorers and will have Desbiens back in net. All signs point to another similarly impressive run, but maybe this time with an extra trophy to bring back to Madison.
Entering the bottom of the seventh inning trailing then-No. 24 Ohio State in its Big Ten home opener at Goodman Diamond, Wisconsin put together a season-defining victory thanks to a walk-off home run by freshman catcher Melanie Cross.
After trailing by as many as four runs in the fifth inning, the Badgers entered the bottom of the seventh trailing just 5-3 when sophomore Sam Arents continued the comeback effort with a double. After a long at-bat, Katie Christner followed with a walk. With one out, Cross came to bat and walloped the second pitch for a three-run, walk-off home run to right field and a 6-5 Wisconsin victory.
“Mel Cross has been pretty clutch all this year,” head coach Yvette Healy said after the upset. “I don’t think there could’ve been a better player up at that point.”
“We knew going in that we were the underdogs. We just told them to play loose and have fun, you never know what could happen,” Healy said. “I think every time we’ve had a team make a run at Wisconsin, it’s been because you have a bunch of kids that believe and don’t give up and just keep fighting.”
Swimming and Diving
There were many big moments for the Wisconsin women’s swimming and diving team this season, but the one that was most memorable was also the most unexpected. In her final collegiate action, senior distance swimmer Jenny Holtzen came into the mile at NCAA’s seeded 34th, and had an epic back-and-forth in-heat battle in the event with Georgia junior Rachel Zilinskas, who finished ahead of her by .24 seconds. Holtzen ended up posting a career-best time in the event of 16:06.98, which put her in 16th place, earning a honorable mention All-American designation and surprising many at the meet and back at home.
On the men’s side, the most memorable moment was in the finals of the Big Ten Championships, when junior Brett Pinfold and senior Austin Byrd lined up two lanes over from each other during the 200-yard backstroke. Pinfold ended up taking seventh overall in the event, and Byrd shined as well, thanks to being able to race his teammate.
“I really like racing my teammates,” Byrd, who took third in the event with a career-best time, said. “We can kind of feed off each other. [Brett] knew exactly what I was going to do [in the 200 back]. I actually told him before the race I was going to push him at that second 50, and I did, made him go faster, and that worked out for both of us.”
Byrd ended up racing in the same event at the NCAAs a few weeks later, his final collegiate race, with a time of 1:41.40, eclipsing his previous career best and earning 22nd place.