SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA — A litany of familiar flaws brought Wisconsin’s (14-6 Big Ten, 23-11 overall) season to a premature end Friday afternoon, as it fell to Oregon (10-8 ,24-12), 72-54 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Unlike in previous NCAA Tournament defeats, there was no late buzzer-beater, no heady comeback or last-minute collapse. On this occasion, it was a complete and utter shellacking, one that somehow felt both avoidable and inevitable.
Against a 12th-seeded Ducks team that likely would have missed the tournament absent their Pac-12 tournament championship, the Badgers wilted in the second half at the SAP Center. Facing athletic mismatches at numerous positions, they couldn’t string together enough makes to match a hot-shooting Ducks squad in the second half.
A defensive battle was expected from two teams who both ranked in the top 18 in the country in defensive efficiency. They met expectations in the first half, with each team struggling to get and make high-percentage looks.
The Badgers got off to a hot start, jumping out to a 7-2 lead. They then experienced a characteristic cold spell, allowing the Ducks to go on an 11-2 run of their own. In a story that has become all too familiar for Wisconsin fans, the Badgers didn’t convert a field goal for over six minutes in that stretch, until an Ethan Happ layup broke the drought.
Oregon guard Payton Pritchard, who Wisconsin recruited hard before he decided to play for his in-state school, scored the first four points for the Ducks. In interviews Thursday, he had stressed that while his team generally plays slow, he preferred to vary paces, and it showed.
The smallest starter on the floor for Oregon by 7 inches, he used his quickness to exploit slower defenders, scoring nine of Oregon’s first 18 points. He also dogged the Badgers on defense, oftentimes pressuring them the full court and verbally accosting them in the process. He finished with a game-high 19 points.
The Badgers defense stiffened, enabling an 8-0 surge to take the lead. The Ducks missed six consecutive shots in that stretch. Sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice followed up for unsightly misses on his first two three-point attempts with a made triple to give Wisconsin the lead, 19-18.
Pritchard then hit a long three to put the Ducks back on top, setting the tone for a back-and-forth evening. Neither team scored for nearly four minutes after the game was tied at 23. Fittingly, a two-handed Khalil Iverson jam tied the game at 25 going into the locker room.
The second half took on a different tone immediately. Iverson, whose offensive turnaround over the last month has saved his team countless times, saved his most impressive feat for the second half’s opening possession.
Finding himself open in the corner, he decided to launch a three-point attempt. To the disbelief of nearly everyone in the stadium, it splashed through the net, his first triple since January 2017. A frantic exchange of dunks by both sides energized the crowd, as the Ducks got out to a lead early.
Three-point shooting proved the difference early in the second period. Up against the country's 11th-best three point percentage defense, the Badgers struggled from start to finish. It wasn't for a lack of open shots, but Wisconsin never consistently converted them into points
“We got pretty good looks, it’s just a matter of making shots,” Trice, who missed eight threes, said. “They just didn’t fall.”
Oregon, though it had struggles of its own in the first half, hit its first three attempts from the arc in the second half, injecting more energy into the building. The Ducks rode those triples and easy dunks to a game-high nine-point lead around the midway point of the second half.
The Badgers showed their mettle throughout the game. Sophomore guard Brad Davison dove for multiple loose balls, and Happ went hurtling into the Badger bench to save a rebound for his team. The senior forward showed no desire to go home early in his final game, playing tough defense and hustling throughout the game.
Yet those demonstrations of heart didn’t equate to made baskets, which were still hard to come by. With numerous opportunities to cut the lead down, the Badgers continued to fall flat offensively, allowing Oregon to stretch their lead to 14. A series of emphatic blocks added insult to injury. The Ducks hit over 70 percent of their shots in the second half, while the Badgers converted just 30 percent.
“Our defense has held us together all season long, but for that stretch there it kind of went away from us,” Happ said.
Iverson co-led the Badgers with 12 points, while Happ added 12 of his own. The senior center committed five turnovers. No other Badger had more than nine points.
Happ's final career game at Wisconsin finished as he left with 88 seconds to play, a towel over his head. After the game, he spoke to his teammates alone in the locker room. “I just wanted to...thank them for being great teammates to me," Happ said. "I’ve had so much support from the guys, they’ve always had my back. It’s tough to move on from this immediate family."
The Ducks will now go on to face 13th-seeded UC-Irvine, who upset the Kansas State Wildcats earlier Friday afternoon, while the Badgers will begin a long offseason, wondering what their future holds.