BUFFALO, N.Y. — As Zak Showalter watched the final seconds of No. 8 seed Wisconsin’s (27-9) 65-62 win over No. 1 seed Villanova (32-4) tick off the clock, his arms shot up toward the sky. Standing at the free-throw line across from the Wildcats’ bench, Showalter stood frozen in the same pose Rocky Balboa stood in Philadelphia, the site of Wisconsin’s Sweet 16 loss last season.
Only then, when the clock struck double zeros, did Showalter start to take in what had just happened.
“This is what we play for,” he said. “This is why we play the game of basketball: to make plays in this situation. And I’m glad I got these guys on my team.”
The guys Showalter was referring to are his fellow seniors: Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Vitto Brown. They are arguably the best class in the program’s history, winning 115 games in the last four years to tie a school record. As a class, they have been to two Final Fours, and after knocking off Villanova, they are headed to their fourth-consecutive Sweet 16.
Saturday, both their leadership and playmaking was crucial as Wisconsin walked away with yet another victory.
“When you all have one common goal and work together to get there, you can do anything,” Koenig said.
Trailing by seven points with 5:31 to play in regulation, the Badgers remained unfazed.
“[We were] very confident. Calm, cool and collected; that’s what Nigel said the other day,” Showalter said. “That’s what our team has gained over the years. Always calm and collected in these situations, and I think tonight was another example of that.”
As Wisconsin clawed back into the game, all four seniors, along with redshirt sophomore forward Ethan Happ, worked cohesively to come up with clutch baskets and timely stops.
Hayes hit a layup with 5:07 to play, cutting Villanova’s lead to just five. On the ensuing Wisconsin possession, Koenig buried a triple to slash the Wildcats’ lead to three. And less than a minute later, he knocked down another contested 3-pointer to tie the game at 57.
Needing a basket to break a 59-59 tie with just over two minutes to go, Koenig elevated from the right wing for yet another 3-pointer.
“I saw Ethan wide open under the basket, but I was already in the air, so I knew he had my rebound if I missed, because we have each other’s backs,” Koenig said. “And luckily I followed through and it went in the net.”
Koenig’s third 3-pointer of the game gave the Badgers a three-point lead with under two minutes to play. But in the final minute, it was Hayes who made Wisconsin’s biggest play at the game’s most important time.
With just over 20 seconds remaining and the score tied at 62, Hayes, who has faced frequent criticism throughout his Wisconsin tenure, caught the ball on the right wing and immediately attacked the basket.
“I didn’t know what move I was going to do before I caught the ball,” Hayes said. “[I] just went, did a fake spin, got to my left hand and fortunately the layup went in for us.”
Hayes’ layup gave Wisconsin a two-point lead with just under 12 seconds to play. On the other end, Brown stripped a shot by Villanova’s Josh Hart and then made a free throw to seal the victory.
“Maybe it’s just a matter of us coming together as seniors, being harder on ourselves and harder on our teammates,” Hayes said. “But whatever it is, we’re definitely finding our stride now.”
After having eight turnovers and allowing 10 second-chance points in the first half, Wisconsin struggled to extend its four-point halftime lead. Plagued by foul trouble for both Happ and Koenig, the Badgers gave away their first-half lead just over five minutes into the second half.
But even after trailing for the majority of the stanza, Wisconsin never stopped believing in its seniors.
“I just knew that our seniors had it,” freshman guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “They really carried us down the stretch, and when we needed big plays, they made plays.”
Hayes led the Badgers with 19 points and eight rebounds. Koenig had 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Brown chipped in ten points, and Showalter’s impact went beyond his four-point, two rebound, one-assist performance. Happ, the fifth Badger starter, also tallied 12 points and eight rebounds.
After the game, when head coach Greg Gard entered the locker room, Wisconsin showered its coach in cups of water. As players fielded questions, the Badger reserves took off any mementos hanging in the locker room that they could stuff into a travel bag. The Wisconsin players wanted to have something to commemorate their win.
But the seniors, especially Hayes, remained composed throughout. They had won a second round game before.
“I might have to wait until the Sweet 16,” Brown said. “There might be some bigger, better signs there, because it means a little bit more.”