WASHINGTON—All season, the Wisconsin senior class talked about wanting to close their careers with a Big Ten Tournament crown.
Two wins brought UW to the title game, but Sunday, Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown watched the No. 24 Badgers’ (12-6 Big Ten, 25-9 overall) championship hopes evaporate as the Michigan Wolverines (10-8, 24-11) rained down threes all afternoon, washing Wisconsin away 71-56.
It was timely shots from a litany of Wolverines that buried the Badgers at the Verizon Center. Three Michigan players finished with at least 15 points and six made a 3-point basket to keep Wisconsin at bay as it tried to scratch its way back into the game in the second half.
“We gave them some things, but they hit some shots, too, timely shots when we were making runs,” Hayes said. “Duncan [Robinson] has one basket all game. It was a huge three when we cut it to six.”
In the first half, the Badgers managed to stay in the contest thanks to the play of Koenig, who hit all three of his 3-point attempts, including a contested pull-up jumper with just two seconds left to pull his team back within a point.
But as the teams poured out of the locker rooms, it was Michigan that had all the momentum. Wisconsin turned the ball over four times before it made a basket after missing its first eight shots in the first 8:02, by which time the Wolverine lead had already ballooned to 10.
The teams went back and forth from there, but Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton repeatedly hit tough shots and the Badgers failed to put together consecutive scoring trips for the next six minutes. Four separate Wolverines—Irvin, Walton, D.J. Wilson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman—scored uncontested layups and dunks to seal their first conference tournament title since 1998.
With the loss, Wisconsin’s senior class stands pat at 113 wins, second-most in school history. Sunday was a chance to inch closer to Jordan Smith’s record of 115, and a win would have made the mark of Hayes, Koenig, Showalter and Brown that much more memorable. Instead, it was just another loss.
“It just kind of hurts inside to have our seniors go out of their last Big Ten Tournament like this,” freshman guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “Any game could be their last game wearing a Wisconsin jersey, so we're definitely playing for them.”
For the seniors, Sunday’s loss stings. After the Badgers collapsed in the latter half of the regular season to hand Purdue a Big Ten title, they again couldn’t finish the job in the conference tournament.
“We came up just short getting second in the Big Ten regular season and then second in the Big Ten conference tournament,” Showalter said. “I'm sick of coming up just short. I want to start winning.”
But the end of the conference tournament isn’t the end of the world, nor is it the end of the season. The NCAA Tournament looms large on the horizon, and UW is refocusing its sights on the greatest show in sports.
It’s there that the seniors can set a new school record for wins and, with a deep enough run, walk away from the program satisfied with their legacy.
“We just got to make sure we refocus, adjust for this,” Hayes said.
“We wouldn’t be the first team that could do something incredible without having a conference championship.”