NEW YORK — Inevitably, Wisconsin’s consistent poor free-throw shooting was going to rear its head out at the worst possible of times. In its 84-83 overtime loss to Florida Friday night, the points that UW left at the charity stripe will leave the outgoing senior class with a flurry of what-ifs, and what-could-have-beens.
The ending of the Badgers’ (27-10) season was abrupt, sudden and yet not completely unexpected. But what could have been a jovial celebration after senior forward Nigel Hayes’ two made free throws with four seconds to play instead quickly transformed into a somber wake.
UW missed five free throws in the extra session. They lost by only one point.
“We had the game put away,” Hayes said. “We made some mistakes. We had a wide open layup that could have sealed the game and then just stepping up to the free-throw line and being able to put them down.”
While Hayes made what briefly appeared to be the game-winning pair of foul shots, the senior forward missed four free throws in overtime. With UW up 75-73 with 2:49 to play in overtime, Hayes stepped to the line and missed both of his attempts.
“I make one or two more of those free throws in overtime and nothing matters now,” Hayes said. “And that’s how important free throws are.”
Poor free throw shooting was of course not the only reason the Badgers fell in heartbreaking fashion Friday night. 16 UW turnovers translated into 20 Gator points. 26 team fouls, including two fouls on 3-point attempts, helped the Gators (27-8) head to the line 28 times themselves. Defensive lapses at inopportune times were equally as costly.
But all season long there was nothing easy for the Badgers about heading to the free throw line and putting the ball in the basket without any defense to contest an attempt.
Every Wisconsin practice concluded with free throw shooting. Sometimes Hayes, redshirt sophomore forward Ethan Happ and the rest of the Badgers made their attempts. Other times, though, their free throws clanked off the side of the rim.
UW shot only 64.4 percent from the line this season, the second-worst among teams that made the NCAA tournament. Happ took 162 attempts on the year, making an even 50 percent of them. Hayes finished his senior season at 58.7 percent from the line. Combined, the Badgers’ frontcourt duo took more than 55 percent of UW’s foul shots.
In Wisconsin’s three tournament games, they shot 64.8 percent from the line. Virginia Tech, Villanova and Florida shot on average 74.7 percent.
Chris Chiozza’s buzzer-beater as time expired will go down in NCAA Tournament history. Hayes said Friday night at his locker that he had already replayed the shot 100 times in his own mind.
Hayes certainly wanted that moment back. But in a one-point loss, every one of UW’s ten missed opportunities at the free throw line is a moment it would like to have back as well.
Instead, they are left to wonder what could have been.
“As of right now, all you can focus on is what if,” Hayes said. “If you woulda’ done more, one more thing, if you could just pick one play and change it.”