BUFFALO — Like elite runners in a 4-man relay race, the No. 8 seed Wisconsin Badgers (26-9) know the importance of a good handoff.
Senior guard Bronson Koenig might have carried UW’s baton for most of its 84-74 victory over Virginia Tech (22-11) Thursday night, but when the Badgers needed a play most, Koenig passed the baton off to senior forward Nigel Hayes and let Hayes take Wisconsin to the finish line.
Leading by only one point with 2:25 to play, Hayes received a pass from sophomore swingman Khalil Iverson on the left block. He spun baseline to create space on his defender Ty Outlaw, and seconds later converted an old fashioned three-point play after making a layup and his free throw.
On the ensuing Virginia Tech possession, Hayes leapt high for a defensive rebound. And two possessions later after a made basket from redshirt sophomore forward Ethan Happ, Hayes corralled his sixth offensive rebound of the game, all but icing away UW’s victory.
While Hayes finished with 16 points and ten rebounds, Wisconsin would not have been in a position to walk out with a win Thursday night if not for the sharpshooting of Koenig.
Koenig scored a career-high 28 points, making a Wisconsin NCAA tournament record eight three-pointers, on 8-of-17 shooting.
“They’re just big time players who make big time plays when we really need them,” freshman point guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “Without them we definitely wouldn’t be in this position right now.”
Time and time again as the Hokies cut into the Badgers’ lead, Koenig answered with a triple. Up one with 5:21 to play, Koenig made his eighth, and final, three-pointer of the night, as the ball rattled around the rim before falling.
“I knew when they kept cutting it to one that I was going to have to make some type of play,” Koenig said. “So I was just trying to be as aggressive as possible.”
Koenig carried the Badgers throughout the first half with redshirt sophomore forward Ethan Happ sitting with foul trouble. The senior guard was UW’s lone double-figure scorer after the game’s first twenty minutes and as UW headed into halftime, Happ and Hayes had combined for only four points.
Yet when Wisconsin emerged from the locker room up 34-30, Happ started to shoulder some of UW’s load as well. He scored Wisconsin’s first basket of the half and blocked Justin Robinson’s shot on the ensuing Hokie possession. He snatched an offensive rebound on UW’s next possession and with 17:43 to play in the game, he found Koenig open for a three-pointer.
“When you get all three of them clicking, which we need at this time of year, then we’re really tough,” assistant coach Howard Moore said.
The teams traded baskets for the majority of the half, but the Hokies never took the lead. Virginia Tech redshirt senior Zach LeDay could have tied the game with 5:38 to play, but missed a free throw after getting fouled by Wisconsin’s Zak Showalter, his fifth of the game.
Showalter, one of Wisconsin’s four seniors, spent the rest of the game on the bench, agonizing if his teammates would be able to overcome a late Virginia Tech run.
“I was the most stressed on the whole team sitting on that bench,” Showalter said. “My guys picked me up. Khalil played great. Obviously Bronson played great. Good team win.”
Iverson chipped in 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench. And Happ finished with 16 points and ten rebounds as Wisconsin outshot the Hokies from the perimeter.
The victory means Wisconsin will play No. 1 overall seed Villanova Saturday at 1:40 p.m. And knowing their next loss will bring the end of their season, the Badgers look to avoid a potential stumble at the finish line.
“Everyone’s just contributing. And everyone knows their role,” Iverson said. “We’re definitely playing for one another.”