As students, professors and families gathered in homes across the nation to celebrate Thanksgiving, the Badgers men’s basketball team and their families headed to Paradise Island in the Bahamas to participate in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
The tournament featured some of the best college basketball teams in the nation — consisting of the #3 ranked Kansas Jayhawks and #22 ranked Tennessee Volunteers, the Butler Bulldogs, NC State Wolfpack, Dayton Flyers, USC Trojans, BYU Cougars and, of course, the Wisconsin Badgers. All teams played hard in their three games over three days, and the Volunteers were crowned champions with a stunning 14-point win over the Jayhawks.
Greg Gard’s Badgers found themselves on the podium as well, as they finished third overall out of the eight teams in the tournament. The path to third place, though, was difficult and definitely well-earned.
Wisconsin took the floor against Dayton on Wednesday afternoon in the opening game for the Badgers and the second of the tournament. The Flyers began the season ranked 24th in the nation, but an eight-point loss to UNLV pushed them out of the Top 25.
The starting five for Wisconsin — still unchanged since the beginning of the season — only managed to produce a mere 19 points throughout the entire game. Steven Crowl led the starters with nine points, while no other starter could manage more than three points. The Badgers looked to the bench early, as Connor Essegian and Carter Gilmore each played 19 minutes.
At the half, the Badgers led the Flyers just 23-14, as both teams struggled to shoot well from any part of the floor — including the free throw line and paint. The Badgers only recorded six three-pointers while the Flyers mustered four. As the second half began, the lack of offensive output continued, as neither team scored more than 30 second-half points.
This, however, is a testament to the Badgers’ defensive play. Hepburn and others contributed eight steals and caused 17 overall Dayton turnovers. This was the main key to success along with the bench scoring from Essegian, as he led all Badgers with a career-high 13 points in the opener of the tournament. In a nailbiter, the Badgers pulled off a 43-42 win after Max Klesmit blocked the potential game winning shot from Dayton.
Just 16 hours later, the same starters took the floor for a 10 a.m. tipoff on Thanksgiving morning against the third-ranked Kansas Jayhawks, led by freshman shooting phenom Gradey Dick. Naturally, the Badgers entered the game as underdogs, especially after Dick’s 25-point performance the day before against NC State.
The offensive struggles made another early appearance in the semi-final matchup Thursday morning, as the Badgers found themselves with just 20 first-half points. While the defense remained solid against the Jayhawks in the first half, Kansas’ three-point shooting propelled them to a 13-point halftime lead.
However, early second-half production from Klesmit, Jordan Davis and Essegian again cut the Kansas lead from as much as 15 points down to one. After the phenomenal Badger defensive play held Kansas to a four-and-a-half minute scoring drought, Kansas bounced back quickly and retook an eight-point lead.
With less than a minute left, Tyler Wahl’s and one play gave the Badgers a 61-60 lead. The first lead since the first half was short lived as Kansas quickly answered with a three pointer, and after 40 minutes of play, the scoreboard read even — 63 points a piece.
In the overtime period, Wahl continued to spark the Badgers’ offense as he ran the floor to give Wisconsin a 68-67 lead. However, with just seconds left in overtime, a Jayhawks layup shattered the Badgers’ undefeated season as Wisconsin fell to No. 3 Kansas 69-68. Regardless of the outcome, the Badgers performed well — Wahl finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, Klesmit contributed 13 points and Essegian recorded another career high with 17 points.
While the outcome of the semi final matchup cannot be changed, it is absolutely worth noting that the Badgers very well should have won the game without the need for an overtime period. At the end of regulation, on Kansas’ go-ahead three pointer the Badgers eventually matched to get to overtime, the pass that led to the shot came from a player who was clearly out of bounds. There has been almost no attention surrounding this massive missed call, which is concerning from a fan’s point of view, but knowing this helps further solidify the encouraging performance against Kansas.
Controversy aside, Wisconsin suited up for their final game of the tournament against the USC Trojans on Friday afternoon. The same starters took the floor as they have all season thus far, hoping to finally turn around some of their offensive struggles.
That’s exactly what Chucky Hepburn did. After scoring just eight points through the first two games of the Battle 4 Atlantis, he started the game against USC shooting 2/2 from three. While the Badger defense wasn’t as stout as it was in the first two games, Hepburn’s new offensive rhythm, alongside scoring from Crowl and Davis, led the Badgers into a two-point halftime lead.
A back-and-forth second half was no surprise, as all three games in Paradise were decided by five or fewer points. Nonetheless, Wisconsin pulled a lead out late courtesy of Essegian, as his hot-handed shooting provided four second-half three-pointers. He would finish with 12 points, as the Badgers recorded their fifth win of the season, defeating USC 64-59. Hepburn led the way with 17 points and Wahl followed close behind with 14 points and nine rebounds.
While the Badgers were shamefully denied an opportunity at the Battle 4 Atlantis championship because of the missed call against Kansas, this tournament provided plenty of positive insight into this Wisconsin team.
Without doubt, Essegian was most impressive. Tallying 47 points through three games, his confident offensive play and shooting further proved his capabilities. This tournament is sure to provide confidence for the freshman.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been a true display of good Wisconsin basketball without the defense. Winning a game while only scoring 43 points is surely impressive, but shutting down Kansas and Gradey Dick’s shooting, as well as the paint-heavy USC offense, was essential to leaving the Bahamas with two wins. Close games are a Badger basketball signature, and wins will come so long as the close games include great Badger defensive play.
The Badgers will take the court next at home on Tuesday, Nov. 29 against the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest as a part of the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. Tipoff is at 8 p.m. and will be streamed live on ESPNU or ESPN2.