NEW YORK — For the sixth game in a row, as Brad Davison jogged out of the locker room onto the court, he left behind a message in all caps on the team’s whiteboard: “BE SPECIAL.”
And while for the majority of the game, highlight moments were few and far between, down the stretch Thursday afternoon, the No. 9 seed Badgers (8-11 Big Ten, 15-17 overall) got special contributions from several players as they survived No. 8 seed Maryland (8-11, 19-13) 59-54 to advance to the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
Though UW led for the overwhelming majority of the game, it could never quite piece together enough consecutive plays to separate from the Terrapins. The two teams traded blows throughout the first half — primarily from the paint, where they combined to score 30 points, good for 55 percent of their total output. Still, the Badgers took a slim two-point lead into the locker room.
Maryland went nearly the entirety of the opening act without making a 3-pointer. Davison, junior forward Khalil Iverson and redshirt sophomore Brevin Pritzl closed out on practically every shot and kept the Terrapins to 1-of-8 — 12.5 percent — shooting from beyond the arc in the first half.
“With the talents that they have offensively, we had to be locked in. And not just the guys guarding [Anthony] Cowan Jr., [Kevin] Huerter, [Bruno] Fernando — the whole team had to be ready,” assistant coach Dean Oliver said. “They really were.”
Though Cowan Jr. struggled from beyond the arc, he was relentlessly aggressive pushing the ball up the court. Maryland would grab a rebound, hand him the ball and seconds later he would be at the basket, drawing defenders into the paint to open up the perimeter. Davison said that guarding him alone was next to impossible.
“He's extremely fast, and he's not one-dimensional. He can shoot pretty well from outside, so you have to respect it,” Davison said. “Everyone's gotta sprint back and be in their gaps, because one-on-one there's not really a way to stay in front of him.”
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The second half featured more of the same, as Maryland countered every brief UW run. When finally the seconds began to tick off the last minute of the game, the Badgers found themselves tied, 53-53. With 28 seconds to play, Pritzl, who had already missed a shot and nearly turned the ball over on the possession, came up with UW’s first special play of the night.
As Davison drove to the basket, Pritzl waded through the defense and his teammate found him at the top of the key just a hair inside the arc. He rose up and buried a jumper over Cowan to give UW a two-point lead.
“I came off and I noticed there was a little opening,” Pritzl said. “If there's an opening as a shooter, you gotta take it. I just let it fly. It felt good.”
After Huerter cut the lead to one with a free throw, Davison grabbed the ball and was promptly fouled. The freshman walked to the free throw line and calmly splashed home two foul shots that gave his Badgers a 3-point lead with just eight seconds to play.
It should be surprising that a team would have such confidence in its first-year guard, but every UW player said they knew he was going to make the pair. Davison knew, too.
“I've put a lot of time into free throws, so it's something I'm very confident in,” he said. “I missed one earlier in the half, so I knew those two were going to go down.”
Finally, with a three-point lead and five seconds to play, the Badgers found themselves defending a sideline-out-of-bounds play. They needed one more special play to put the game on ice.
As Dion Wiley tried to slip the ball to Huerter, Iverson leapt around his man and poked the ball away. He tracked the ball down and was fouled with less than a second on the clock. A pair of free throws catapulted UW into the quarterfinals against No. 1 seed Michigan State.
Redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ led the way for the Badgers with 14 points, and made an uncharacteristic 85.7 percent of his free throws, but it was the trio of Pritzl, Davison and Iverson that ultimately sealed the deal. They combined to score 34 points and shot 10-of-11 from the free-throw line.
Next, UW takes on the high-powered Spartans for the third time this season. Once again, they’ll need a special night to advance.